The Deutsche Oper on Bismarckstrasse has a second floor lounge that looks like a photo shoot from Wallpaper magazine. The room is wide, long and low-slung, with only a few pieces of mid-century modern furniture breaking up the cream-coloured rectangle. It looks like a New York art museum, circa 1965. It's an odd place for Guy Maddin.
The building opened in September, 1961, just weeks after the Berlin Wall went up and split the city's old opera house from patrons in the West. So for the duration of the Cold War, West Berliners watched Wagner and Rossini in a strangely un-Baroque hall.
Tonight, it's set to host Maddin's uber-Baroque Brand Upon The Brain, a fever-dream of a silent movie, accompanied by a live orchestra conducted by Jason Staczek, three "foley" artists performing live sound effects, and Maddin pal Isabella Rossellini narrating and occasionally shrieking from the stage left. Brand premiered at the Toronto film festival and has since played New York and Los Angeles. In Berlin it's the hottest ticket in the festival's Forum section. When we climb the stairs out of the Deutsche Oper U-Bahn station, fans are already holding up "Suche Karte" signs, looking to buy scalped tickets.
Brand Upon The Brain is intensely personal, but also it's the fullest flowering of Maddin's imagination to date. The complex, massively Freudian narrative about a young "Guy Maddin" under constant surveillance by his severe mother is somehow both soul-baring and typically covert. Technically, the film is a marvel, with a complete and persuasive merging of European silent film vocabulary with the formal disruptions of the American avant-garde. The live stage presentation insists on splitting the audience's attention from screen to orchestra to foley artists and back again. It restores "silent" cinema as active, sometimes dazzling performance even as it lays bare the hard labour that goes into creating illusion. Watch Caoimhe Doyle, Goro Koyama and foley legend Andy Malcolm work flapping fabric and twisting plastic to build the sound of fire, and you understand something new about mimesis. I ran into German filmmaker Monika Treut (My Father Is Coming, Virgin Machine) after the screening and she said how mesmerized she was watching the foley work.
Especially in its live performance, this is a masterful work, and unique in contemporary cinema. After going through hell trying to make more conventional films and finally finding his own mature voice with the genius short Heart Of The World, Maddin is moving from strength to strength. So it was a real pleasure to see him shyly enter the post-screening celebration at the opera house. He had to weave through a traffic jam of Canadian cultural stars, in town for the Berlinale, or just living life in Berlin: Sarah Polley and her producers Jennifer Weiss and Simone Urdl, Clement Virgo and producer Damon D'Oliveira, producer Niv Fichman, Toronto festival director Piers Handling, Garine Torossian and Arsinee Khanjian, who are in Berlin with Stone Time Touch, director Catherine Martin from Montreal, artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Brand Upon The Brain executive producer Jody Shapiro, and of course Maddin himself.
You could spend weeks trying to gather all these people in one room in Toronto, but here they are on Bismarckstrasse, buzzing around a retro lounge, getting high on Prosecco. Beautiful.