Wednesday 25 April 2012

DRAGAN WENDE - WEST BERLIN Reviewed By Greg Klymkiw - Hot Docs 2012 Must-See #9

Dragan Wende - West Berlin dir. Lena Müller, Dragan von Petrovic, Vuk Maksimovic (co-director and cinematographer) **** Review By Greg Klymkiw

"I said to the guy: 'Pay 99 euros and fuck all day!' If you have no teeth, just lick her pussy." - Dragan Wende, brothel doorman, pimp and dealer in the all-new, reunified Berlin.

For some, the Cold War in Germany was a Golden Age.

There was a West Berlin and an East Berlin.

Life, at least for those in the west, was paradise.

Dragan Wende, a Serbian expatriate brothel doorman, pimp and dealer in Berlin, prefers to describe the occupied Germany in strictly anatomical terms: "America had the left side of the bum. The Russians had the right side of the bum."

Those lucky enough to reside on the non-communist side of the city lived La Dolce Vita - profiting both legally, and in Dragan's case, mostly illegally. According to Dragan, he and others like him were "the asshole inside."

Wistfully, but with a touch of bitterness over the eventual Reunification of Germany after the Berlin Wall came tumbling down November 9, 1989, he declares: "But we were living! I lived like Count Yorga The Vampire [the famed 70s B-movie character, an undead Baltic nobleman with a penchant for the blood of virgins]. We had everything - clothes, cash and girls. Everything was beautiful. Just look now!"

The "now" he refers to is the life he currently leads in the contemporary, reunified Berlin. Standing outside bordellos and earning a commission for every gentleman he sends into the dens of carnal delights is a far cry from those days in the 70s when he engaged in all manner of fraudulent activity and practically lived in all the hot nightclubs. Dragan worked for multi-millionaire playboy Rolf Eden and was instrumental in helping to build Eden's empire of discotheques, strip clubs and brothels.

In terms of his activities in such time-honoured traditions as black market profiteering and outright financial fraud in occupied and/or war-torn countries, Dragan was especially successful as he and his cohorts from the "old country" held the most valued passport in all of Europe, if not the world. As a Serb from the former Yugoslavia, he had easy access to both East and West thanks to General Tito's brilliant emphasis upon neutrality and the fact that neither communist nor democratic regimes required a visa from Yugoslav nationals.

Dragan had access to a revolving door for any and all illicit activities he chose to engage in. Alas, as (bad)luck would have it - two tragedies occurred. Number one, his partner in a $250 million swindle died, taking the final digits of a Swiss bank account with him to Heaven. Or Hell. Dragan held the first few digits, but without the rest, he was unable, nor will he ever be able to get his mitts on the dough. Number two tragedy - Reunification and the fall of Communism.

For millions, life would change for the better, but for many millions more (most of whom were not criminals), life changed for the worst. Dragan could, perhaps, have moved into more extreme areas of criminal activity - the gangsterism that permeates Eastern Europe in far more insidious ways than Communism ever did - but he never saw himself in those terms. To him, he conducted business and it was the business he knew best. He was a master hustler, but hardly a gun-toting thug.

For Vuk Maksimovic, a burgeoning cinematographer in Serbia, Dragan was this legendary Uncle who lived the high life in Berlin. Vuk's whole life was permeated with tales of this high-rolling blood relative. He wanted to get to know his Uncle Dragan. Armed with two cameras and two trusted colleagues, producers and co-directors Lena Müller and Dragan von Petrovic, Maksimovic and team fashioned Dragan Wende - West Berlin which is easily one of the most original, entertaining and penetrating documentaries about the wild days of pre-and-post communist society.

Capturing Vuk's visit with Dragan (replete with tours of the now-gentrified former hotspots of Berlin, life in the brothels and interviews of former partners-in-hustling), the film blends all of this with a series of brilliant films within the film - mock 70s-style docs detailing Dragan's past with the history of a vibrant, long-dead way of life.

This compelling approach to documentary storytelling is a strange and dazzling display of direct cinema that bounces between a cinéma vérité approach to the squalid reality of Dragan's contemporary life, punctuated by garish 70s archival footage assembled like a weird combination of straight-up TV documentary of the period and the 30s/40s-styled Warner Brothers montages (often fashioned by the likes of Slavko Vorkapich and Robert Wise).

Most of all, though, it is a documentary that feels very close to the world etched by John Cassavetes in his stunning crime drama The Killing of a Chinese Bookie or, for that matter, in Peter Bogdanovich's magnificent adaptation of Paul Theroux's Saint Jack - but here, Dragan is a real-life version of the characters played by Ben Gazzara in both films - sleazy, charming, corrupt, living on past glories and yet, so very, very cool.

Dragan's constant refrain throughout the film is: "Man, I'd give anything not to work today."

Thankfully, he does. And when he doesn't, he gets his nephew Vuk to take his place as a brother door manager. All filmmakers, in one way or another are glorified pimps. This movie might be a first, though. The pimping is not only metaphorical, but literal.

This, of course, is the stuff of great cinema.

"Dragan Wende - West Berlin" is playing Sat, Apr 28 9:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3 and Sun, Apr 29 4:14 PM at the Cumberland 2 during Toronto's Hot Docs Film Festival. To get tickets, visit the Hot Docs website HERE.