Saturday, April 23, 2016

Beresina oder Der Letzten Tage der Schweiz (Beresina or the Last Days of Switzerland)

At the outset of "Premature Burial," Edgar Allan Poe announces that some topics are simply too terrible for fiction, adducing among his list of horrors, "the passage of Beresina."  Poe refers to an episode during Napoleon's retreat from Moscow in 1812, mass slaughter that occurred when thousands of panic-stricken French soldiers tried to cross a bridge that was too small to accommodate the crush of retreating troops.   It is curious that a spry, even merry, Swiss satire has been named after this calamity.  Apparently, the Swiss troops allied with Napoleon demonstrated rare fortitude at the horrific bridge crossing and, even, sang an inspiring tune to keep up their spirits:  Mutig, mutig, lieber Brueder  -- Courage! courage! dear brothers... In Daniel Schmid's 1999 comedy, the song of the Swiss guards at the Beresina bridge is a code that triggers a geriatric monarchist rebellion, a coup d'état that leaves Switzerland under the rule of a kindly and ambitious Russian prostitute. 

I don't know much about Daniel Schmid -- he appears as one of the directors impersonating mobsters in Wim Wenders great neo-noir, The American Friend.  He has made one famous documentary, Tosca's Kiss, a picture about an Italian nursing home for opera singers, a noble and moving work that I saw when I was in college and, of course, was unable to understand at that time in my life.  On the evidence of Beresina, Schmid is certainly a capable satirist, although he works in a broad style that is tantamount to caricature -- there are faint influences of Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove in the film, as well as a tiny bit of Brecht, but, by and large, the movie is a cheerful bagatelle; although there are multiple assassinations at the climax of the picture, the film generally feels light and confectionary and it is certainly very, very pretty.  Elena Panova plays Irina a Russian prostitute from some place called Elektrostal.  She has an extended family that she hopes to import into Switzerland, a place that she regards as a kind of paradise on earth.  In her letters to family members, always visualized as a dour crowd occupying one large, cluttered room, Irina portrays herself as circulating in Switzerland's high society where she has many benefactors.  In fact, she is a call-girl specializing in mostly sado-masochistic fantasies to which the Swiss elite seem to be addicted.  (Her madam is played by Geraldine Chaplin.)  The girl has broad Slavic features, creamy white skin and a lush figure generally set off by leather dominatrix garb -- the actress is incredibly beautiful and, of course, part of the pleasure in the film is simply watching her.  Irina is spying for security forces in Switzerland, led by an inept spymaster who keeps losing parts of his reddish moustache to the bondage masks in which Irina locks him.  A mafia chieftain named Tedeschi is laundering money through the Swiss banks -- a crime in which literally everyone, including the crusading investigative journalist, is complicit.  Poignantly, Irina wants to become "a Swiss girl" and worships the country, immersing herself in its history and spectacular landscapes -- there are stirring oaths taken at the foot of towering glaciers; in one scene, a bad guy places a phone call from a phone booth improbably located on an escarpment overlooking a vast river of ice.  (She tours the National Museum to learn more about her adopted country where she acquires a friend, confidante, and drinking buddy in Benedetta, a female janitor who works the subterranean torture chamber exhibits in place.)  One of Irina's customers is an old man who is a member of Cobra, a monarchist conspiracy plotting to kill the top members of the government and replace them with a King -- the entire country is imagined as resting on a maze of subterranean tunnels linking one place with another.  Irina serves the government efficiently and Tedeschi is captured.  Unfortunately, Tedeschi knows too much about corruption in Switzerland and he has to be murdered.  Irina's utility to the Swiss secret police diminishes and the government, now regarding her as an embarrassment since she knows the fetishes of most of the cabinet ministers, decides to deport her.  (Previously, she has been promised citizenship for her efforts.)  After a botched attempt at suicide, Irina accidently triggers an uprising in the Cobra cell.  All of the principal politicians in the State are assassinated and Cobra seizes the airwaves announcing that Switzerland's monarchy will be restored.  At a spectacular coronation ceremony, Irina is made queen of Switzerland.  The film ends with a lavish display of fireworks.  The final reel of the film, particularly the scenes involving the coronation of the Madonna-like whore, have a brilliant, enameled even cloisonné appearance -- it's like the scenes of the Mad King Ludwig swooning in his Wagnerian castles in Syberberg's Requiem for a Virgin King -- there seems to be some genuine nostalgia for the monarchy and, when the prostitute embarks  from the cathedral on a kind of gondola across one of Switzerland's vast lakes, the sky lit by fireworks, the film's ending seems bigger and more grandiose and more moving, in fact, than the relatively tawdry subject matter.  Last but not least -- the movie is a kind of musical:  there are several amusing songs and the picture ends with a fantastic turbo-charged polka tune by Florian Ast.   

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