‘Night Watch’ (2004/6)

Back in the early ’90′s international cinema seemed on the verge of a breakthrough, primarily credited to the efforts of one director– Wim Wenders.

While Wenders was officially part of the New Wave of German Cinema that washed up on American shores between 1969 and 1982, he was something of a movement within himself. While many German filmmakers of the time – Volker Schlöndorff, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, etc. – made small, independent pictures that dealt with a post-War German identity that was split by the Cold War. Many of these films deal with broken marriages, broken households (Fassbinder) and broken notions of German Romanticism (Herzog).

Though Wenders started that way, he somehow found a more compelling and consistent subject in an evolving Europe. Despite borders and ideologies Wenders saw common ground between the then East- and the Western Europe and part of that was about music. ‘Kings of the Road’ (1976) is a road-movie that takes place alongside the East German border with a sountrack that’s more American Country-Western than Politburo. Two men drive a truck along the East German border while listening to Roger Miller– “ Trailers for sale or rent/Rooms to let, fifty cents/No phone, no pool, no pets/I ain’t got no cigarettes/Ah, but, two hours of pushin’ broom/Buys an eight by twelve four-bit room/I’m a man of means by no means/King of the road “) and Rolling Stones tracks.

Indeed, the aural space of the movie somehow suits America more than West Germany, but that’s the point, after all. Wenders is at home in the World, not Germany, not even necessarily Europe. With his subsequent efforts at global narratives – ‘ The American Friend ‘, ‘ Notebook on Cites and Clothes ‘, ‘ Until the End of the World ‘ and even ‘ Buena Vista Social Club ‘. Instead of taking a myopic view of his role as a German filmmaker, Wenders’ canvas grew – first from the Pan-German/Pan-Western interest he exhibited in ‘Kings’, to a utopian globalism, often sound-tracked by none other than U2. Though Wenders wasn’t operating as a chronicler, his filmic ambitions were as ambitious as his studio peers, Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer. Wenders was trying to package the late 20th c.

But all good things come to an end, and Wenders’ big career seems to have sloughed to a halt after he stopped being interested in making films in Europe and started to stray to Cuba, L.A. and the American South. His ‘L.A Trilogy’ — ‘The End of Violence’ (1997), ‘The Million Dollar Hotel’ (2000) and ‘Land of Plenty’ (2004) – was an unmitigated flop, and he was fired from the studio he founded, Berlin’s Road Movies. Since ’03, Wenders has mostly worked as a hired gun on projects like Martin Scorsese’s PBS documentary series ‘The Blues’ (2005).

In any case, Timur Bekmambetov’s ‘Night Watch’ resembled nothing if not the realization of Wenders’ gritty potential. Wenders’ best work – his ‘Amerrican Friend’ of 1977 – had a certain grit that got lost, once he got better financing. Bekmambetov’s ‘Night Watch’ puts an international Western culture on display without the cloying sentimentality that wrecked ‘Paris, Texas’ and ‘Wings of Desire’. Bekmambetov, working with ‘Night Watch’ author Sergei Lukyanenko is comfortable plumbing some of the darker aspects of human nature if not dystopia. Bekmambetov and Lukyanenko are both Russian, both from Kazakhstan, and the winters there are said to be long.

Many reviews of ‘Night Watch’ have been a bit misleading in that they describe the movie as something of a checklist of it’s influences. Here in America, we’ve gotten used to our footnoted, toungue-in-cheek cross-refrential movies, mostly written by Ehren Kruger and Kevin Williamson. In opposition to those expectations, ‘Night Watch’ is a wholly original movie, based on a wholly original set of novels. While you might have seen movies about armies of evil, shape-shifters and vampires, you’ve never seen *this* incarnation ever before.

While ‘Night Watch’ bears comparison to ‘Underworld’, mention of ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Matrix’ it is most definitely set in our present. ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ keeps a latch-key child entertained while a cuckolded husband traffics with witchcraft-peddlers to get his wife back. Frodo and Gandalf have no place here. When it was released in Russia, back in 2004, it broke all Russian box-office records, luring a broad swath of the Russian public into theaters. Stupid American in-jokes just aren’t capable of doing that, and I somehow suspect the Russian equivalent of ‘mall rat’ is incapable of sustaining any film industry.

Part of the charm of this film, besides the more than serviceable CGI is that it takes place in exotic Russia. That alone is a reason to see this in its subtitled form and NOT to wait for the invariably Keanu-cast remake of this movie which will probably appear before the decade’s end.

See it. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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