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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Blues in Red' Paints a Stark Political Portrait

February 06, 1988|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

Bearded and blocky, Klaus Drittemann (Gerulf Pannach) may seem at first an uncharismatic central character, but have patience, he may grow on you. His passion has gone almost completely into his music, wild and haunting songs of political protest which, as "Singing the Blues in Red" (at the Westside Pavilion) opens, have gotten him kicked out of his native East Germany and made him a wary emigre to the West.

The film, by controversial British director-documentarian Ken Loach, was made under the name "Homeland," which suited it far better. It's an involving and bitingly acute examination of an artist with divided loyalties and a relentlessly questioning nature. "Homeland" also has a succinct directness like the title of Loach's two fine earlier films, "Poor Cow" and "Kes," but who are we to question the wisdom of entire marketing departments?

Loach has cast close to the bone, since Pannach himself is a Liedermacher, a composer-singer of the kind of protest songs which dot the film, and like his character, is exiled from East Germany, his homeland.

Drittemann bears the additional weight of a celebrated family name. His father, Jakob Drittemann, a classical pianist, escaped East Berlin in the 1950s, leaving his wife and family behind and became a hero of the socialist Democratic Left. But since a last concert in the 1970s, he has disappeared. His son, who was 9 when his father left, wants to find out whether this hero-father is still alive.

Klaus is greeted as he crosses the Berlin Wall by Lucy (Cristine Rose), a sleek, effortlessly bilingual publicity woman for Taube Records, only too anxious to sign and promote him. Some of screenwriter Trevor Griffiths' deliciously nastier shots occur in his portrait of the inner workings of Taube: Lucy's delicately applied pressure about the contract; the promotional party, awash with the trendier folk ingesting the trendier drugs while an ice swan boat drips in the background. One of the nicer moments comes at the end, as the drugs wear off and these assorted international stars sit, messed up and soul sick, listening to Randy Newman's "Guilty."

It's clear that wherever he goes, Drittemann ain't gonna go gentle. At his first gala press conference, he challenges the smarmy speech of welcome by the West German minister of culture about the freedom of the West. Citing the Bitburg cemetery debacle, Drittemann calls West Germany's government "in direct line with German fascism," with ex-Nazis back in high office, with millions unemployed and with racist policies.

Part of the film's fun is watching Lucy working the phones afterward, silkily trying to turn this interview into a triumph, media-wise. But it's clear to Drittemann exactly where he stands in the West: as an exploitable item. He chooses, instead, a more inward journey, linking up with a small, dedicated young French journalist (Fabienne Babe), who may have turned up news of his father.

The balance of the film is this trip, an almost Eric Ambler-like odyssey, booby-trapped with surprises and revelation. Loach, working with his usual team, writer Griffiths and the superb Chris Menges ("The Mission"), his cinematographer, catches our eye and our mind in "Singing the Blues in Red," in which no system goes unchallenged and innocence is a luxury no one can afford.

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