FANTASIA DIARY: GATE TO HEAVEN (Tor Zum Himmel)(English site)
Gate to Heaven is a German comedy dealing with a serious subject: the hardships immigrants to Germany, legal and illegal alike, must endure before they're even allowed to leave the airport, if they don't get deported first.
Alexej (Valeri Nikolayev, credited as Valera Nikolaev), an illegal refugee from Russia who would like to one day be a pilot, escapes from the immigrant detention facility, for all intents and purposes a prison, at Frankfurt International Airport (EDDF) with the aid of a map provided by Dak (Miki Manojlovic), a corrupt airport employee who uses illegal immigrants as baggage handlers, and other menial jobs, for a year before providing them with forged papers for a new life in Germany, and houses them underground, in a cramped recess between several pipes that isn't too comfortable but gives the immigrants a lot of places to hide.
Nisha (Masumi Makhija) is a legal immigrant from India working in the airport on the cleaning staff. She dreams of being a stewardess, and sneaks aboard empty airliners at night to dress up and roleplay, attending to imaginary passengers' every need. Fortunately for Nisha, she has a high-level airline employee, Joachim Nowak (Udo Kier), interested in doing everything he can do to accomplish her dream... but is his interest in her purely platonic.
One night, Alexej sneaks aboard an empty, or so he thinks, South African Airways 747-400 in order to pretend to be a pilot, not being aware that he's not the only one on board playing make-believe and he becomes enamored by the brief glimpse he gets of Nisha and seeks her out, mistakenly believing her to be one of the SAA crew and not just a simple maintenance lady, though he catches up with her soon enough and the two of them have a series of pleasant but all too brief interludes, indulging in their shared penchant for airline-related "cosplay". The two of them grow closer, however we find out that Nisha is in Germany to escape her abusive husband and he's about to regain custody of their son, so her top priority is to earn enough money so that the bribe-loving Dak and his associate in India can grease enough palms on flight crews and in immigration for Asis. But, when the situation becomes more complicated, can Alexej save the day or will Nisha be forced to submit to Nowak in exchange for his assistance?
This is a very odd little film. It's mostly grounded in reality; while Viktor, the Tom Hanks character, was stuck in the bright-and-shiny and fast food concession and duty-free shopping filled world of The Terminal (which was also a very good movie; I'm not knocking it), Gate to Heaven mainly shows the seedier, stark, utilitarian underbelly of the airport not meant for the eyes of tourists where the absolute bottom rung of the airport employee food chain toil, unappreciated by the passengers literally above their heads. The Frankfurt Airport detention centre is portrayed as being a very dreary place; in retrospect, I'm surprised that Frankfurt Airport cooperated with the filmmakers to the extent that they did, since it portrays their treatment of refugee seekers in a less-than-flattering light.
However, there are a few fantasy sequences very much rooted in Bollywood musicals, and, to make this version of Frankfurt airport extra surreal, the entire movie was shot in English, which was probably the only practical way to shoot a movie with an international cast such as this for whom English is likely a common second language, and also is advantageous to sell it on the International market. However, it is odd to hear Germans speaking English to one another in a German film, and one of my weird little pet peeves having to do with continental European movies shot in English is evident in this film: foreign newscasters in countries outside of the Anglosphere delivering the national news in English. I had the same problem with Louis Leterrier and Corey Yuen's The Transporter; I can suspend my disbelief and pretend that a Russian submarine crew is speaking to each other in Russian even if I'm hearing English, but foreign newscasts delivered by a famous newscaster, in this case, Dagmar Berghoff, in accented English just takes me out of the film entirely for a minute or two. Even if the Star Trek universal translator rule, "Don't ask why they're speaking English", applies everywhere else in a film, I think newscasts should be in the local language with subtitles.
Since director Veit Helmer (Tuvalu) shot this at an actual airport and not a huge soundstage like Steven Spielberg did with the aforementioned The Terminal, he was able to do a lot with a relatively small budget. None of the locations in this film really looks or feels like a set, which is a definite plus for me; one of my few problems with the reimagined Dawn of the Dead from earlier this year is that the way the stores were arranged didn't seem quite realistic, since the interiors were a lavish set, while, in the original Dawn of the Dead, George Romero didn't have any money for sets so he just shot at the real-life Monroeville Mall near Pittsburgh. The airport here, like the mall in the 1978 Dawn of the Dead, feels real because it is real. Udo Kier informed us during the question-and-answer session following the presentation of this film that, due to the threat of terrorism, some FBI field agents in Germany had to screen the entire cast to clear them to shoot behind security lines at Frankfurt International, though security screenings are standard for anyone who works beyond the metal detectors at any major airport around the world.
While the general premise of this film might sound like another culture clash comedy like Bend It Like Beckham, the characters in this film are all separated from their cultures and families and they are forced to form bonds with people from other continents by focusing on what they have in common with each other.
My only real problem with with this film was a very deus ex machina ending with several very convenient coincidences, but the film, while dealing with weighty subject matter, rarely takes itself all that serious save for a couple of tragicomic scenes, so it's not too inappropriate.
All in all, Gate to Heaven is a sweet, breezy, fun little film that puts a human face the often unhappy situation of refugees to Germany while refraining from getting overly political and heavy-handed. Hopefully, this film will soon get a distributor for North America and get a successful limited run like Run, Lola, Run.
(Interview from 2003 with director Veit Helmer, which includes a good glimpse at one of the musical sequences.)
N.B. I'll add the non-movie part of the report tomorrow.