Bagdad Cafe (1987)
It was with some trepidation I re-viewed ‘Bagdad Cafe’ again since first seeing it shortly after it was released in Australia. Produced in 1987, directed by resolutely independent filmmaker, Percy Adlon, it was a hit with audiences – and with me – back then, and I was concerned the freshness may have faded in the intervening years. I need not have worried.
Adlon was a German filmmaker (I guess he’s still a German filmmaker – but since ‘Bagdad Cafe’ he has been based in California), with European sensibilities, making a movie set at a truckstop cafe/motel in the Mojave desert on route 66.
A tourist couple from Bavaria are driving through the desert. (Spoiler alert for the rest of this paragraph – not much of a spoiler as it happens only a few minutes in.) Their marriage is unravelling. When the Mrs – Jasmin Munchgstettner, played by Marianne Sagebrecht – decides enough is enough, leaving the car and her husband, we see her pulling a wheelie suitcase along the desert road, wearing a woollen suit, Bavarian feathered hat, and heels. She is strikingly out of place here.
We find our way to the Bagdad Cafe, peopled by a motley cast of characters, including the owner of the place, Brenda (played by CCH Pounder), whose hostility appears impenetrable.
Neither Jasmin nor Brenda have ever met anyone like the other before, so each is alien and unknown to the other – the ample, white Bavarian with the coiffed hair and the wild-haired, angry, black roadhouse owner.
Jack Palance plays Rudi Cox, formerly from Hollywood and ‘the pictures’ – adorned in a variety of headbands and a rainbow assortment of wide-sleeved satin shirts, living in a caravan onsite. Palance brings compassion and tenderness to this role.
Adlon reveals the humanity of characters that, in other hands, may have appeared only as superficial stereotypes. These are people not of the mainstream; on the borders of the current of life. We feel them battling anger and loneliness, quietly yearning for human warmth and understanding in the desolation of the desert. There is also delight in the humour Adlon weaves through the film; humour not at the expense of his characters but which provides insight into them.
And for me one of the great joys in this film is the delicious Marianne Sagebrecht, who plays the central role with depth, compassion and sparkle. It is marvellous to see a large woman express herself as sexy and playful. Still, after all these years, very rare on screen.
This is a film of gentle surprises and surprising gentleness (despite a few cheesy moments).
Percy Adlon’s method is beautifully described on his website, where he quotes from a letter he wrote to a German film student:
“I never forced my filmmaking but made the necessary decisions step by step when they were needed – a beautiful and exciting and not always successful procedure.
“Style was always very important to me. A lead color for an entire film. A sparse environment. A limited space. One song. No real score. Just the separate instrumental tracks of the song. A lot of original sounds. Not too much dialogue. No violence. Praise of woman. A mood between tears and laughter. Others later called it my ‘poetic realism’. Light and color, motion and calm, emotion, surprise, hope, joy, being touched, fulfillment, images that doesn’t have to be explained. This is what’s important for my films. Some conflict, some suspense. But just very carefully used like some spice that should never overpower the more subtle flavors.”
Adlon trivia: Percy Adlon’s grandfather, Lorenz Adlon, developed the Adlon Hotel in Berlin – where Greta Garbo uttered the famous line: ‘I want to be alone’ in the film ‘Grand Hotel’. It also has the room from which Michael Jackson showed his son, Blanket, to fans by dangling him over a balcony.