Wednesday, 8 November 2006

Red Cockatoo, The (Rote Kakadu, Der) (2006)

Growing up artistic in a socialist country can be a pain

You’d associate period romances with the English, with their Jane Austen films, and the Chinese, with their television melodramas by Qiong Yao. Aside from the class society, English inheritance laws, the Chinese civil war or the distant approach of the Japanese soldiers, there isn’t much solid background in period romances, which ostensibly take place in a period of social and political interest but are written as though this background never really existed, aside from the strange clothing people used to wear then.

And then, there is Dominik Graf’s The Red Cockatoo, where the romance is intertwined with the political background, yet finely balanced such that neither element drowns the other out. The time is 1961, and the Berlin Wall will come up in the summer. But for now, 20-year-old Siegfried (he prefers to be called Siggy), a scenery painter in a Berlin theatre, is keen to prove himself worthy of acceptance to a fine arts college. In his free time, the young man travels to the West to sell off porcelain figures to art collectors, a quick way to raise the cash needed for his future studies. He also goes to the local park to practise sketching, to hone his artistic skills. And this is where he lays eyes and falls in love with the beautiful poet Luise, her impulsive and boisterous husband Wolle, and their merry crew of poetry-reading, hard-partying, rock and roll loving beatnik friends. Who are of course proscribed by the state and under surveillance by the Stasi’s network of informers, and avoided by all polite society for their decadence and radicalism.

Fraternising with these social undesirables might jeopardise his chances of getting accepted to college, but when you’re in love, does it matter? So begins Siggy’s first love affair, a complicated but honest triangle with Luise and Wolle, his introduction to rock and roll and individualism, and a very fun dance club called The Red Cockatoo, so hip and teeming with energy and youth that state officials make it a point to dance there once in a while to demonstrate their touch with the common people.

Technically, the coming of age love story between a young boy and an older couple has been done before, but what makes The Red Cockatoo worth watching is how the background of history, politics and daily life in communist East Germany is worked into the romance story as well as the lives of the protagonists. Dominik Graf has a mostly realistic take on life in the GDR, taking the opposite view of Good Bye Lenin!, while refraining from simplistically painting the communist days as relentlessly bad.

I am sure this film will find resonance with audiences here. Problems in the film have their local parallels, such as the idea that people will generally get where want through their own merit, but an introduction from a well-placed person, a testimonial from a higher-up, and a stint at the right places would do well for your resume. Similarly, the permitted existence of a rowdy, hedonistic, Westernised and countercultural club in East Berlin, the non-violent, almost non-repression of artistic and bohemian society, and the ludicrously light punishments for cultural and ideological offenders (but of course they still need to be punished) – astute observers will argue that all these have their analogues here: the Nation Party, Zouk, the government’s hot-and-cold affair with homosexuals and the cultural elites and the almost non-existent policing of the blogosphere (but of course they still need to be policed).

Perhaps the love story is just a smoke screen for the deeper historical and social study of the GDR. Yet perhaps the exercise in recreating the GDR is just a smoke screen for the deepest question that all idealists and dissenters need to ask themselves: Do I stay here and try to make my country a better place, or do I join the brain drain? I feel that The Red Cockatoo works because of its attention to historical detail and realism, as well as its attention to raising important, universal questions.

First published at incinemas on 9 November 2006

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