Video Virgil: Burn, Liebling, Burn
One of the coolest DVDs I’ve seen recently is "What To Do In Case Of Fire?" ("Was tun, wenn’s brennt?"). Since the answer to the title question is "let it burn," ("brennen lassen"), I did not expect to like this film. It’s a post-punk German version of "The Big Chill," and I am on record as not liking punk or the "The Big Chill" (which I find about as authentic as Las Vegas).
But "What To Do" impressed me from the opening sequence, a home video supposedly shot by six "creative anarchists" in the Kreuzberg section of West Berlin in 1987. Hand-held, jump-cut, overlaid by graffiti-style graphics and driven by a pounding soundtrack, this video shows the six joining a battle against armored police who are trying to evict squatters, and then planting a sizable bomb in an abandoned mansion.
At that point, the video ends. The bomb ticks, then gets stuck. And twelve years pass before it explodes, set off by a real estate agent in the new, unified Berlin, who is showing the property to just the sort of wealthy businessman the anarchists of the 1980s were trying to keep out. No one is hurt, which is important, because the rest of the film asks us to care about the six bomb-makers as they reunite to block a police investigation.
"What To Do" impressed me because in the first place, it is smart. Its cynicism cuts deep but not too deep, and is largely directed at the group’s own myth of itself. While none of the six has reckoned fully with this myth at the beginning, all do so by the end. This is not true of "The Big Chill," which gradually chokes on its own self-righteousness.
It is also fun. In "The Big Chill," the former radicals reunite for a funeral, which is unfortunate, because it gives them nothing to do but smoke joints and jaw. In "What To Do," the six former anarchists must act, thereby illustrating Aristotle’s dictum that only through action is character revealed. We judge them not by what they say but by what they do. And eventually, they all do what is right.
It’s possible that an old Kreuzberger would find "What To Do" as phony as Potsdamer Platz. The real Autonomen, as they called themselves, pulled some nasty tricks to keep "imperialists" out of the neighborhood. For example, they waged a campaign of threats against a restaurant that was too bourgeois for their taste, finally shutting it down by throwing human feces all over the place. The Autonomen didn’t care that the proprietor was a well known Marxist filmmaker; they just wanted to be the most nihilistic kids on the block.
But this is not the tone of "What To Do." On the contrary, it is suffused with a youthful, funky exuberance that was doubtless what made Kreuzberg appealing in the last days before the fall of the Wall. So I recommend it highly - in the spirit of anarchism that knows how to liberate without doing harm.