The films of British director Ken Loach are dominated by an inextricable link between people and place. The coming-of-age film Kes (1969) isn’t just about a young boy; he’s a young boy from Yorkshire. Loach’s characters breath and bleed such local color that one couldn’t imagine their stories taking place anywhere other than their homes. To imagine My Name is Joe (1998) outside of Glasgow would like imagining Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) set in outer space. How curious, then, is Fatherland (1986), a film about a man brutally severed from his home in Eastern Germany. Inasmuch as Loach’s other films are about community and culture, Fatherland focuses on the involuntary lack thereof.
Banished from Eastern Germany for his politically subversive music, songwriter Klaus Drittemann (Gerulf Pannach) finds himself stranded in the West. But instead of celebrating his newfound freedoms, Drittemann sees the traces of the same bondages that ruled the East. He views the American music executives who pounce him as soon as he crosses the border with suspicion and veiled disgust—sentiments soon confirmed by coke-fueled orgies where properly de-politicized fellow exiles parade around like flamboyant dandies. He declares the West German authorities the descendants of fascism during a press conference and sees little difference between the CIA and the Stasi. Instead of creating a new life, he balks at all available options, deeming them all inherently tainted.
If not for Loach’s insistence on depicting seemingly all governments and authorities as corrupt—
even Great Britain gets a scene where a band of peaceful protestors are callously broken up by policemen—one could easily make the assumption that Drittemann’s distrust was merely the product of a paranoiac East German upbringing. But Loach, an unrepentantly political cinematic rabble-rouser, had been systematically stonewalled by the Margaret Thatcher government, forcing him to seek funding for Fatherland in France and West Germany. Any cynicism at work in this film is as much his own as his lead character’s (something further complicated by the fact that Drittemann is loosely based on Pannach’s real life).
Fatherland is really two films hobbled together: the first half being Drittemann’s search for self-identity and purpose in his new environment; the second half being a bizarre almost-thriller about Drittemann and a mysterious French-Dutch journalist Emma (Fabienne Babe) tracking down his long-lost father in the bucolic English countryside. The eventual revelations concerning Drittemann’s father, his whereabouts, and his reasons for abandoning his family ring hollow. [SPOILERS AHEAD] Almost laughably, it wasn’t enough for Drittemann’s father to be an ex-Nazi, he was also an ex-Stalinist responsible for massacring political dissidents and civilians in Spain and a former CIA agent. [SPOILERS END] This attempt to prove the universality of political oppression regardless of doctrine approaches hyperbolic absurdity. One can’t help but shake the impression that if Loach had kept his film focused in West Germany and on Drittemann’s struggles to establish a new life, the political subtexts would have been both more potent and believable.
The only thing more disappointing than the film itself is the recent Twilight Time Blu-ray release. Eschewing even the threadbare commentary tracks, trailers, and “newsreel footage” to be found on their other releases, it’s a wonder Twilight Time even bothered to create original packaging and didn’t just send copies of the film out in CD jewel cases labeled with magic marker. It doesn’t help that the subtitles, usually one of Twilight Time’s best features, curiously omits all of the English dialogue. Since almost all of said English dialogue is either mumbled or delivered with thick, almost unintelligible European accents (Babe’s is particularly opaque), the result is a film that almost dares English-speaking audiences to try and understand what is going on.