Film Review: Hilde

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Berlin International Film Festival -- Special

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BERLIN -- "Hilde" is a sumptuously mounted biopic about Hildegard Knef, the iconic German film and singing star who also became a best-selling author. She was, in a sense, the anti-Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich quit Germany in 1930, before the Nazis came to power, and never left any doubts whose side she was on. Knef, a younger and non-political individual, remained in Germany through the war and made the poor decision to take as a lover an ardent Nazi who was the national film manager.

So in the U.S., David O. Selznick may have put Knef under contract, but he didn't gave her a role for three years since she was a German with a dubious history. In Germany, she created enough scandals from other poor judgments to develop a love-hate relationship with its fickle public.

Despite living in the U.S. as well as Berlin and having a truly international career, fame has faded for the late performer everywhere but in her native land. So "Hilde" should enjoy solid boxoffice when it gets released in Germany next month. Theatrical bookings in other markets may be slim though. Which is too bad, for with director Kai Wessel's steady hand and a standout performance by Heike Makatsch, who is one of Germany's current top singers and actresses, "Hilde" is one of the better showbiz biopics in a long while.

The film covers the years from 1943 to 1966 in the life of a woman who died in 2002 at age 76. The film images that at a concert in then West Berlin at the peak of her career in 1966, she has an epiphany backstage where she discovers who Hildegard Knef really is.

You can excuse this conceit in Maria von Heland's thoughtful but at times superficial screenplay, for Hilde was a confusing woman to her public and always seemed like more than the sum of her disparate parts.

Allied bombs may be rocking Berlin in 1943, but all young Hilde cares about is her acting ambitions. She bulls her way into the famed UFA studios by getting the head of casting (Monica Bleibtreu) on her side and soon is sleeping with film czar Ewald von Demandowsky (Anian Zollner). The film treats this as a real love affair, but the timing does suggest more cynical motives.

As Soviet tanks rumble into Berlin, Hilde dresses as a man and actually joins her lover to fight in the homeland militia before the two are taken prisoners and forever separated. (Von Demandowsky was eventually executed.)

After the war, her new mentor is Erich Pommer (Hanns Zischler), a one-time top German producer installed by the Allies to rebuild the German film industry. She becomes a star in 1946 with "Murderers Among Us" and soon afterwards marries her first husband, Kurt Hirsch (Trystan Putter), an American with a Jewish-Czech background.

The lost years in Hollywood lead to the demise of that marriage. When she returns to Germany, she again exercises poor judgment with a brief nude scene in a 1950 movie that scandalizes the prudish public. So it's back to America where a few film roles establish her career.

At this point, the film skips huge chucks of her life, barely mentioning her 675 performances on Broadway in Cole Porter's "Silk Stockings." The film rushes to the 1959 meeting with debonair British actor David Cameron (Dan Stevens), with whom she falls in love, setting off another scandal since he is married.

They do eventually marry and David becomes as much a manager as a husband, who encourages her recording career when movie roles dry up. The concert finally winds up the film, which leaves out her divorce and subsequent third marriage, the successful books, the birth of a daughter and battles with cancer.

This also leaves things on a high note of a concert where the public can rediscover their Hilde as a singer and songwriter finally at ease in her own skin. Makatsch unifies all the contradictory impulses and bad behavior by portraying a woman who heedlessly pursues her goals and careers, barely acknowledging the feelings of others. She is never a bad person. Showbiz so fills her soul that she knows only two things -- how to perform and how to survive. Dietrich herself once said of Hilde: "She's Mother Courage."

Production values are strong in Wessel's film, especially in the German sequences. Those in Hollywood were clearly shot elsewhere but are faked well enough. Hagen Bogdanski's cinematography is fluid while Thomas Freudenthal's sets and Lucie Bates' costumes are another good reason to see this movie.

Production companies: Egoli Tossell Film/MCC Independent
Cast: Heike Makatsch, Dan Stevens, Monica Bleibtreu, Michael Gwisdeck, Hanns Zischler
Director: Kai Wessel
Screenwriter: Maria von Heland
Based on an autobiography by: Hildegard Knef
Producer: Judy Tossell
Director of photography: Hagen Bogdanski
Production designer: Thomas Freudenthal
Music: Martin Todsharow
Costume designer: Lucie Bates
Editor: Tina Freitag
Sales: Beta Film
No rating, 136 minutes