Berlin Babylon

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, an area of the divided city previously occupied by fences, checkpoints, and the infamous "death zone" became available for construction. It was every developer's dream—a fresh tract of land suddenly appearing in the middle of a crowded city—and in the decade that followed, the land witnessed a wave of building, rebuilding, redesigning, and retooling. According to director Hubertus Siegert, that wave is one of several keys to Berlin Babylon's message, along with his own symbolically charged version of the Tower of Babel story and his frustration over the systematic erasure of Germany's past through demolition of its historic buildings. But it's impossible to find a literal reading for the film in any of these production concepts. Essentially a collection of vividly beautiful but profoundly uncontextualized and unconnected sequences based around a renewal-cycle theme, Berlin Babylon takes viewers to ground zero at a variety of building sites, where minimally identified architects, city officials, and investors discuss their projects between panoramic shots of the city and straightforward images of construction workers at their trades. The film's deep, precise colors, which look like they belong in a Peter Greenaway movie, are Berlin Babylon's first major surprise. The second is how watchable it is, given its obsessive focus on buildings. Much of the dialogue is relatively unimportant; at points, the dry, technical chatter gets in the way of the speechless shots of construction and destruction, which begin to make architecture look like an organic part of the landscape, subject to the same seasonal sway and death-and-rebirth cycle as any perennial. Berlin Babylon's best scenes are set entirely to the music of Beethoven and Brahms, or to the intense, evocative score by industrial-music pioneer Einstürzende Neubauten. Some of the sequences come from stock footage of the Wall's last days or of post-WWII demolition of crumbling old buildings, but Siegert shot most of the film between 1996 and 1999, assembling his vibrant images into a smooth, semi-impressionistic flow. Berlin Babylon has been typed as a "cinematic essay," but it's even less pointed than that. It's more like a tone poem, a simple, pretty haiku on a narrow subject, which Siegert makes into a universal portrait of human ambition—both the successful kind and the type doomed to Tower of Babel-like collapse.

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