When Wim Wenders spotted fellow German film director Percy Adlon across the room
at Musso and Frank’s, Wenders rushed over to his colleague, enveloping him with a
Obviously delighted by the chance meeting, the twosome regaled each other -- in German
-- with tales of their latest Hollywood adventures. The language barrier couldn’t
disguise an almost boyish camaraderie -- you felt these two artists-in-exile could’ve
first met after skipping school to catch a double feature in the balcony of a Berlin
We do have a real camaraderie,
Adlon said later, after ordering a thick American steak.
But we’d never met until a few months ago in Berlin. We were seated at dinner together
and discovered that we’d both been planning very difficult pictures. So we had this
emotional, two-hour conversation and in an instant, became friends for life.
Nothing bonds directors together like the possibility of impending disaster.
We feel like brothers now,
said the 52-year old director whose latest film, BAGDAD CAFE, opened to glowing reviews
here last week.
You get very scared by these ambitious projects. We’ve both had our little films
that did well, but now...
He flashed a crooked grin.
Now we’re about to make our "Heaven’s Gates!"
It’s a measure of the distance between European-cinema economics and Hollywood that
Adlon could imagine a potential $10 million project (easily less than the average
studio film) as a boondoggle of “Heaven’s Gate” proportions.
In fact, Adlon’s latest film, BAGDAD CAFE, which stars Marianne Sägebrecht, CCH Pounder
and Jack Palance, cost only $2 million, though he insisted that budget is
quite big by European art-film standards.
It should easily make its money back. Though playing in only five cities, BAGDAD
had a strong early showing, having earned nearly $200,000 playing just 11 theaters.
The critics have been just as enthusiastic.
Newsweek’s David Ansen called the film a “genuine oddball vision,” saying that Adlon’s
cinematic style has a “sweetness that lingers like a desert sunset.” The Washington
Post’s Rita Kempley called Adlon’s film a “gingerly happy little fable” that plays
“something like a Sam Shepard play by way of the Black Forest.”
A dapper man with an expansive personality and a fondness for hats (this evening
he wore a felt fedora), Adlon exudes a refreshing air of innocence about Hollywood
-- past or present. Asked about Palance’s role as a retired Hollywood set painter-turned
artist, Adlon admitted.
I didn’t even know who Palance was until someone showed me a picture of him -- then
I said, "Oh, him! He’d be perfect."
Born in Bavaria, Adlon worked as a TV documentarian before emerging as a writer-director
of such acclaimed films as CELESTE and SUGARBABY. Though BAGDAD is his first English-language
film it’s safe to say it won’t be his last -- he’s fascinated by the rich, textured
landscape of America, a country he’s adopted as a second home.
(His proposed “ambitious” project, tentatively titled “Louis With a Star”, would
dramatize the life of his uncle, Louis Adlon, who lived in America, married Marion
Davies’ sister and became part of William Randolph Hearst’s circle of friends.)
... Just as Wenders’ PARIS, TEXAS seemed obsessed with America’s rootless drifters
and jungles of neon lights, BAGDAD CAFE is equally intoxicated by enchanted desert
landscape. The chronicle of an unlikely friendship between a German tourist and the
cranky black proprietor of a crumbling truckstop-motel, “Cafe” displays the work
of an artist bedazzled by America’s uniquely desolate terrain.
I like places where there is nothing -- what I call zero places,
said Adlon who was frequently traveling through America with his wife -- and collaborator
For me, the desert is that great empty place. It’s a wonderful horizontal stage.
When you put two figures into the picture, you have suspense. And when you put in
He clapped his hands triumphantly,
you have drama!
Adlon discovered BAGDAD’s desert setting during a 1985 Christmas driving trip with
his family. They stopped for coffee at a tiny crossroads cafe near Ludlow, Calif.
We were looking for a place we’d seen on the map called Bagdad, but we never found
it because the town had disappeared,
said Adlon, his voice tinged with a touch of wonder.
Apparently the last pieces of concrete that marked the town had been removed. No
one lived there anymore.
Adlon raised his glass of wine, as if to make a toast.
I guess if you’re looking for a zero place, what could be better than a name on the
map that didn’t exist anymore,
That’s what makes America so fascinating for us Europeans -- our countries are so
old and people stay in the same place for so long. But here, everyone is so mobile
that they’d just picked up and moved on and the town was gone!
I love being on your open roads where there’s nothing but rich fields and flat land.
It’s where I let all my wounds heal.
Adlon’s “wounds” are the aches and pains of a struggling storyteller. Like many writer-directors,
he prefers his work on the set to his labors at the typewriter.
I always found it hard to start on a story, so hard that I would get into a panic.
Finally, I invented a trick. I paid a woman $150 to sit opposite me when I was trying
to write and act like a taximeter. She would say to me harshly, ‘Come on. The meter
is running!’ And I would be forced to concentrate and start my work.
Adlon offered a sheepish grin.
Yes, it’s true. I did my first two scripts that way. But now I write with my wife,
which is much more enjoyable -- and less expensive!
Adlon moved to feature films after years of work -- as both an actor and director
-- in German theater, radio and TV.
Initially, I hated the idea of doing fiction because I found it so artificial, so
far from the truth,
But as you work on little things, they become bigger and one day you find out that
your structure doesn’t fit your theme anymore. I had wanted to do a documentary on
a Swiss writer, but I decided his life was so dramatic that I began writing dialogue
-- and suddenly I was making a fiction film.
One of the charms of BAGDAD CAFE is how it treats each character in the film no matter
how minor, with equal curiosity and insight. It’s a trait Adlon first developed making
TV documentaries, which focused not on celebrities, but ordinary folk. When he shot
a portrait of a Bavarian village, he ignored the mayor and police chief, preferring
to interview a farmer’s wife.
One of his favorite films examined a German orchestra attendant who spent his days
cleaning and caring for the ensemble’s instruments.
If you looked really close, you could just see the maestro, barely visible, walking
in the background of a few shots,
It was funny, because he was very jealous. We had to show him the film, because he
was so concerned about how he looked -- even though he was just in the background
of the shots!
As a director, Adlon has developed a patient, slyly inventive narrative style that
often reveals more from observation than action.
I don’t like colorful acting,
I don’t give my actors psychological explanations, all that acting school business.
That’s not film making. I want the actors to capture the spirit -- and the rhythm
-- of the script.
For example, Marianne Sägebrecht is a person who talks a lot in real life -- she
has a wonderful personality. But for the movie, where she’s an outsider who’s not
sure of herself, I thought her character shouldn’t speak so much. At least not with
her voice, but with her body. I wanted her to express with her skin what she’d express
with words in real life.
Adlon says he still has
30 happy years left to make movies. I’m old enough not to be spoiled, but young enough
to still enjoy it," he said. "Directors are like conductors -- they just get better
Adlon particularly relished working on BAGDAD with so many black actors, an experience
which reminded him of his own ethnic roots.
Black actors have many wonderful theatrical and comic gifts which have a lot in common
with our Bavarian culture and theater,
We’re very earthy and instinctual -- they call us the German Africans. You can see
lots of connections -- our yodels are like the African drums. And our folk dancing
and traditional costumes are much like the ones you see in Africa.
He wagged his head.
We’re not like the German Protestants -- they’re very medieval, stiff, old blood.
We have a strong Bavarian Catholic tradition, with lots of life and color and eroticism