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Movie Review

Anarchic Radicals in Germany Reluctantly Face a New Reality

Political idealism fades as career and family beckon in the energetic 'What to Do in Case of Fire.'

July 19, 2002|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"What to Do in Case of Fire" strikes just the right balance between hard questions of political idealism and rambunctious, credibility-defying action and suspense, resulting in provocative, energetic entertainment.

It is a notably ambitious and zesty first major theatrical feature for German director Gregor Schnitzler, for whom writers Stefan Dahnert and Anne Wild have provided a witty, audacious script. It's no wonder that Til Schweiger, Germany's top star, signed on to head a fine ensemble cast.

It opens in bustling, present-day Berlin, where scars of the long-divided city are rapidly being covered by sleek new construction. Even the faded elegance of the Kreuzberg district, home to many young, politically radical squatters in the '80s, is falling to the wrecking ball. (The squatters' movement was fueled by a shortage of housing that existed despite more than 10,000 empty buildings in West Berlin at the time.)

Holed up in an upper floor in a remaining derelict building are two holdouts, Tim (Schweiger) and Hotte (Martin Feifel), who remain faithful to their anarchic ideals. Tim is doggedly loyal to the exuberant, bearded Hotte, who uses but is not circumscribed by a wheelchair. They have long been fixtures at street demonstrations.

Their lives are suddenly upended. A bomb they and other members of their radical splinter group had placed in an empty Grunewald district mansion in 1987 explodes when a real estate agent opens its door to show it to an undersecretary of state freshly arrived from Bonn.

Neither is harmed, but Manowsky (veteran Klaus Lowitsch), a tough, shrewd police detective nearing retirement, studies the bomb fragments and knows where to find the culprits. The bombing could prove an excuse to drive out the remaining squatters.

(In one of the film's telling moments, Schnitzler displays a splendid new building in the former East Berlin's Potsdamer Platz, letting us take pleasure in its spare, dazzling beauty and feel glad that it is replacing one of those bleak Communist-era structures that encircled the plaza. Then Tim reminds us that their destruction means a substantial loss of low-cost housing.)

Storming Tim and Hotte's quarters, the cops confiscate reels of film, including instructions for assembling the kind of bomb that went off in the mansion. What are Tim and Hotte to do but round up the four other long-departed members of their group and plan a daring break-in at the Tempelhof police station, where the incriminating footage is being held?

Against this plot the filmmakers present a group of thirtysomethings inevitably taking stock of their lives as they are persuaded, albeit with understandable reluctance, to join Tim and Hotte in the farfetched scheme to save their own skins.

In the more than a decade since the group scattered, Maik (Sebastian Blomberg) has transformed himself from punk rocker to advertising tycoon and is confronted with the possibility that one of the films he shot with his Super 8 camera could wreck his empire.

Nele (Nadja Uhl) has held on to her leftist idealism but is a single mother absorbed in caring for her two infants. Terror (Matthias Matschke) has become so far removed from his daredevil nickname that he has become a public prosecutor with a promising future. And then there's the beautiful Flo (Doris Schretzmayer), Tim's great former love, reticent and wary, but clearly successful and surely with a man in her life.

If the four strays find themselves pondering their lost idealism, not to mention their sense of fun and adventure, then Tim starts wondering whether his radicalism hasn't become pointless or obsolete. In Manowsky's view, the struggle of the '80s was between the right and the left, but in today's reunified Germany, it's between "the winners and the poor slobs who haven't sold out."

The film's satirical edge, abetted by Andreas Berger's dynamic camerawork and Stephan Zacharias and Stephan Gade's hard-driving score, helps immensely in holding together a volatile mix of fantasy action-suspense, trenchant political commentary and no small amount of heart-tugging sentiment. "What to Do in Case of Fire" is thoughtful, even stinging at times, and lots of fun.

*

MPAA rating: R, for drug use and profanity. Times guidelines: mature themes, language, humor.

'What to Do in Case of Fire'

Til Schweiger...Tim

Martin Feifel...Hotte

Sebastian Blomberg...Maik

Nadja Uhl...Hele

Matthias Matschke...Terror

Doris Schretzmayer...Flo

Klaus Lowitsch...Manowsky

A Deutsche Columbia Pictures Filmproduktion GmbH presentation of a Claussen-Wobke production. Director Gregor Schnitzler. Producers Andrea Willson, Jakob Claussen and Thomas Wobke. Executive producer Norbert Preuss. Screenplay Stefan Dahnert and Anne Wild. Cinematographer Andreas Berger. Editor Hansjorg Weissbrich. Music Stephan Zacharias and Stephan Gade. Costumes Stefanie Hilke. Production designer Albrecht Konrad. In German, with English subtitles.

Exclusively at the Fairfax Cinemas, Beverly Blvd. at Fairfax Ave., (323) 665-4010.

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