German ‘Conversation’ has Berlin auds buzzing

BERLIN — Oscar-nominated German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl’s directing debut, “Conversation With the Beast,” created a stir among local auds and critics when it had its first German screening in the Panorama section of the 47th Berlin Intl. Film Festival on Saturday.

Although produced in Germany, the English-lingo pic preemed in Toronto in September. Christian Berg of Munich-based distrib Time told Daily Variety that Mueller-Stahl had been anxious about opening the film in his homeland, and thus sought “the protective atmosphere of an international festival for the German premiere.”

Even in a country still obsessed with its Nazi past, “Beast,” in which Mueller-Stahl plays a man who claims to be Adolf Hitler, was bound to create controversy. Bob Balaban portrays an American historian who comes to Berlin to interview the 103-year-old in an attempt to find out whether his story is true. In the course of the film, the would-be fuhrer reveals the motivations for his deeds.

Young audiences at the Berlinale gave the movie a warm round of applause, but the critical reception in Germany was more mixed. While some reviewers found the film’s Chaplinesque humor unworthy of the subject matter, trade sheet Blickpunkt Film described the pic as “uncomfortable and disturbing … it rips open a wound that we thought had healed long ago. But it is a suspenseful challenge to the viewer for that very reason.”

Despite Mueller-Stahl’s international reputation as an actor, German film subsidy funds — usually a main source of coin for Teutonic moviemakers — wouldn’t touch the pic. In the end, Berlin producer Rudolf Steiner managed to get most of the backing from pubcasters ZDF and Arte.

Berg said that “Beast” will open in Germany on Thursday on only 20 screens. A copy will be sent to a single exhibitor in each major city, but the film will play for a longer period of time. A largely arthouse crowd is expected, but Berg hopes that fans of Mueller-Stahl will give the movie a chance despite its difficult subject matter.

Mueller-Stahl, who said he made the “Beast” to free himself of the shadow of Hitler, made the trip from Los Angeles to Berlin last weekend to accept the Berlinale Camera award for lifetime achievement. The 66-year-old actor-director has appeared in nearly 100 movies, including Costa-Gravas’ “Music Box” and Bille August’s “The House of the Spirits.” He has been nominated this year for a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance in Scott Hicks’ “Shine.”

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