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SCREENING ROOM

'Waco' Gets Week Run : Documentary assails the government for its handling of the Branch Davidian siege.

September 11, 1997|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

William Gazecki's landmark "Waco: The Rules of Engagement," a terrifyingly persuasive all-out attack on government agencies for their handling of the siege of the Branch Davidian sect, will open Friday for a one-week run at the Grande 4-Plex, 345 S. Figueroa St., in downtown Los Angeles. (213) 617-0268. A major work in the documentary form, it was screened recently at the Museum of Tolerance.

The American Cinematheque's comprehensive in-person tribute to iconoclastic German filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim continues Friday at the Raleigh Studio's Chaplin Theater at 7:15 p.m. with his beguiling 1992 "I Am My Own Woman." It is a loving portrait of an indomitable elderly man who for most of his life has dressed in simple women's attire, and it is marked by a seamless flow between past and present, between documentary and dramatized events.

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, as he calls himself, killed his brutal Nazi-officer father but escaped serving four years in a reformatory because of the war's end. He instead wound up spending 30 years creating and maintaining--against seemingly overwhelming odds--the only private museum in former East Germany, a fine old manor furnished in turn-of-the-century artifacts; Von Mahlsdorf was long a hero to East Germany's oppressed gays, for whom his home was a gathering place. Von Mahlsdorf is a perfect subject for veteran gay filmmaker Praunheim, who has over years developed a deft, effortless manner in blending documentary and drama in presenting the lives of outsiders and eccentrics.

"Anita, Dances of Vice" (Friday at 9:30 p.m.) combines Praunheim's familiar camp outrageousness and pathos with a dazzling command of style. A plump, elaborately gowned elderly woman (Lotti Huber) starts muttering to herself as she wanders the streets of Berlin. Suddenly, she announces to passersby that she is Anita Berber, "the greatest nude dancer in Germany"--and starts trying to prove it. Hustled off to a mental institution, she begins reliving her gaudy past.

Praunheim makes of her memories no less than an homage to the silent Expressionist films of the German cinema's Golden Age in the '20s--even to the jagged, slashed lettering of the inter-titles and the plaintive, jangly Weill-like score. Praunheim's grand prize is Huber, a 75-year-old life force with the intense eyes of Brigitte Helm in "Metropolis" and a dancer whose own life has been almost as colorful--though not as self-destructive--as that of the determinedly uninhibited Berber.

Huber is as hilarious as she is gallant and adorable. The old woman's memories, which are in color to contrast with the grayness of her present, also take the form of an exotic modern ballet performed by Ina Blum, as the young Berber, and her partner-lover Sebastien Droste (Mikael Honesseau). Berber's existence is of the utmost headiness, epitomizing Weimar experimentation and decadence.

Like "I Am My Own Woman," "Anita, Dances of Vice" (1986) is a celebration of the indomitability of the truly free human spirit. It will be followed by "Affengeil--Life Is Like a Cucumber" (1990), which offers a captivating, often hilarious yet touching portrait of Huber. We also become acquainted with Praunheim, who has a loving, if rocky, longtime friendship with Huber. Huber clearly never was a beauty but in her youth possessed a dancer's body, and she retains such vitality and passion you can understand how she snagged a couple of husbands.

Praunheim's 1986 "A Virus Knows No Morals" (Saturday at 6:15 p.m.), a savage, imaginative, scattershot Brecht-like allegory set largely in a gay bath, became one of the earliest and most provocative attacks on the hypocrisy, ignorance, politics and economics surrounding the AIDS crisis.

It bars no holds as it satirizes virtually every aspect of the AIDS crisis while nominally telling of the fate of a gay bathhouse proprietor (Praunheim) who has AIDS himself but won't permit the distribution of safe-sex pamphlets in his establishment. It will be shown with his 1990 "Silence=Death," which also reveals that Praunheim has the breadth of vision, the compassion and the militancy and, yes, the sense of humor necessary to tackle the AIDS epidemic in all its aspects.

Praunheim being Praunheim, you can be sure some X-rated, though safe, sex is involved.

Praunheim's 60-minute 1988 "Dolly, Lotte and Maria" (Saturday at 9:30 p.m.) introduces us to three delightful and remarkable women who began as dancers and who fled Hitler's Germany to make new lives in America.

Petite, redheaded Dolly Haas was once a top UFA star, a radiant comedienne as well as a singer and dancer, who continued her career on stage in the United States but eventually became content with being the wife of theatrical caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.

Lotte Goslar, a celebrated comic mime as well as a dancer, continues to perform; for 10 years in the '40s and early '50s, she was a mainstay of the Turnabout Theater on La Cienega Boulevard.

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