Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"INTERNATIONAL," The Film, Not the Style.

Well, here it is, the summer of 2010, which means I'm just getting caught up on cable with movies from 2009, so this may be Old News, but I had fun.

The man in the photo, in case you don't know, is the British actor Clive Owen, star of last year's The International, a globe-hopping thriller directed by Tom Tykwer. Clive plays an Interpol agent with his teeth into a banking scheme to profit from world-wide terrorism by controlling the debt associated with large-scale weapons sales (the film, alas, is inspired by a true story). The International got mixed reviews, but I say any movie with Clive Owen in it is worth seeing, possibly twice, especially a movie that also features so much great architecture.

Now, I am the person who sits quietly watching a film and then suddenly gasps, as if shot by a poison dart, "Oh my God." If a companion should happen to ask, "What's wrong?" I have to answer, shamefacedly or even unapologetically, "Nothing, but there must be a hundred thousand dollars worth of Fortuny lamps on that set." Movies to me are not about design, but many a mediocre movie has been enhanced by great art direction.

The International opens (on a closeup of Clive in the rain) outside the Berlin Hauptbahnhof—that's the main train station. And here it is:

It is not the only modernist assemblage we will visit on our fictional journey to real places. There is, for example, the General Secretariat of Interpol in Lyon, France:

But the real modernist marvel of the film is Volkswagen's Autostadt, a visitor facility for automotive enthusiasts adjacent to the VW plant in Wolfsburg. It's the work of several architects and consists of a number of pavilions, including a central hall with the largest glass doors to be found anywhere on the planet. It's used in the film as the headquarters for the bad bank. Happily for lovers of modern architecture, this is not a film where only the villains are associated with modernism, a very peculiar quirk in the collective consciousness of filmmakers worldwide. There are villains everywhere in this film, in buildings of all kinds.

There's some nice historic architecture in the film, too, notably the Piazza Cordusio in Milan, as well as that city's wedding-cake train station in the Piazza Duca d'Aosta and the adjacent beaux art hotel (currently Le Meridien). Here's the Milan Central Station:

There is even a brief encounter in the famed Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II:

Film makers invariably take advantage of the way in which a city is defined by its architecture by framing their establishing shots to include signature buildings. Having dropped a few bodies in Milan, however, The International is finished with Europe and moves on.... to New York CIty—you can't have a thriller without it, apparently. And where better to stage an epic gun battle than in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, that iconic inverted beehive of Frank Lloyd Wright's. 

Now, the first Guggenheim turned 50 years old in 2009, which was fairly frightening to me since I not only remember visiting in its early days, but I remember them building the place. And here is a sketch by the master himself:

Before my first visit, a school trip, I had learned that the interior was deployed around a continuous spiral, so I arrived with a handful of marbles and let them loose at the top, assuming they would roll all the way to the ground floor. My experiment was a dismal failure. The marbles rolled only as far as the elevator on the floor below, thanks to centrifugal force, about which I was then as sadly ill-informed as I was about museum etiquette. (You will remember this anecdote while watching The International vis-a-vis a wheelchair.)

Now, I don't want to give away too much plot, but suffice it to say that there is a gun fight in the Guggenheim that does a great deal of damage to the building, or at least seems to. Oddly the caretakers of the actual museum weren't too keen on automatic weapons going off inside the place, so they agreed to let the crew shoot there for one day only—with no explosive special effects. And here is the crew shooting in the actual (first) Guggenheim, the one on Fifth Avenue:

Meanwhile, back in the Babelsberg Studios in Berlin, a nearly full-scale replica of the interior of the Guggenheim was constructed (it's 98 percent the actual size). Here is the set during production:

The art you see in the set is by German video artist Julian Rosefeldt (b. 1965), who studied architecture in Barcelona and now teaches at the Bauhaus-University Weimar. Among the images you can see in the film are several from his 2001/2002 series, Asylum, which is a nine-screen projection of mesmerizing, slow-motion images. And here's a still from one of the video tracks:

To wrap up this sequence, here's a still of Clive in The International with Jack McGee as NYPD Det. Bernie Ward. (This is the Guggenheim set; you can see a Rosefeldt image behind the actors.)

But dust off your passports, we're on our way to Istanbul, where we'll visit the subterranean Basilica Cistern and the Suleymaniye mosque before paying a visit to the Grand Bazaar, the world's largest covered market, and another site where I have dutifully left behind a wad of tourist cash. Here's a terrific photo of the interior of the bazaar by British travel photographer Darrell Godliman (whose work can be viewed, and purchased, at www.dgphotos.co.uk.)

And I will be forever grateful to director Tom Tykwer for a chance to get up on the roof of the bazaar, someplace I have, alas, never been, but it's faboo. Here's an aerial shot:

And here's a shot from the film, with our anti-hero in hot pursuit of the villain:

I have to say this is my favorite film set (at least partly) in Istanbul since Topkapi, and I can't wait to get back.

So, how would I rate The International overall? On a scale of one to five, I'll give it a grudging 3.5. It held my interest, but at least two of those points are for the art direction and cinematography. The acting was about what you'd expect. Naomi Watts is in it, but she didn't add much. The script needed some help. Still... an enjoyable way to spend a hot afternoon in New York City. And I did watch it twice.—ML


  1. I saw this movie and missed all of these finer points (lol). Seriously, thanks for pointing these things out.

  2. A bit late for a comment, I know. But I was given a tour of that locomotive 'roundhouse' in Potsdam back in 1998 when we were looking for premises which could house the sets for a new German television soap opera. It was an oddly spooky experience... not on account of the architecture which I found fascinating, though. The viewing was arranged by the Treuhand, the organization 'privatizing' the legacy of the East German regime. There was an undercurrent of murky dealings, possibly such as found an echo in Tom Tykwer's movie.

    In the end we opted to transform a fruit and vegetable storage warehouse in Cologne for our purpose!