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Review: Utz (1992)

Directed by: George Sluizer | 98 minutes | | Actors: , , , , , Miriam Karlin, , , Mackriel, , Clark Dunbar, , Jakub Zdenek, Christian Rabe, Anthony Donovan , , , , Bonnie Williams

A film about a passionate collector of porcelain, and in particular the specific ‘Meissen’ porcelain, is probably not a subject that will make the heart of the average film viewer beat faster. Sure, the target audience isn’t the typical blockbuster audience, but even for many movie house buffs – who aren’t familiar with Bruce Chatwin’s novel of the same name – this won’t be top of the list. Yet ‘Utz’ turns out to be a fairly fascinating person and film.

There is actually no false note to be found in ‘Utz’. The entire cast is excellent acting, particularly Brenda Fricker as Baron Von Utz’s housekeeper Marta, an outstanding Paul Scofield as Dr. Vaclav Orlik, an eccentric collector of house flies (and previously fascinated by mammoths), and last-but-not-least Armin Mueller-Stahl as the title character. Mueller-Stahl presents a nuanced picture of this character. He’s withdrawn and yes, a bit unworldly. But he is also sensitive and empathetic. And just when the viewer threatens to bond with him, he is again distant, a bit mischievous or haughty. It is also clearly someone who is struggling with himself, especially his own obsession.

That obsession concerns his obsession with collecting: porcelain, indeed, and perhaps a bit of opera divas. These two obsessions come together beautifully in one of the most beautiful scenes of the film. In it he has placed various porcelain figurines of elegantly dressed men and women on the table in front of him, while he blares opera music from his record player. Then he gives a kind of (private) performance with these statues, which he moves towards and around each other, as if they were real opera actors. His friend from New York, art dealer Marius Fischer (Peter Riegert), watches this spectacle, together with Marta, breathlessly.

George Sluizer shoots his film and main characters with love and attention and he edits the story with interesting jumps in time, whereby the viewer is presented with a look back and forward at the right moments, so that he can get to know more about the characters, or is smartly kept at a distance, to keep the tension in it.

Because what drives Baron von Utz anyway? Why is he fascinated by this porcelain? How did he get this enormously expensive collection? And: where did it suddenly go when he suddenly dies? But also: can he still see his life separate from his porcelain, his obsession? Does he have – or make – enough room in his life for relationships and love? The viewer will gradually find out, although it might have been better if not everything had been explained. Baron von Utz’s theory of the beginnings of mankind, that he thinks porcelain is alive, or the history of the relationship between Utz and his housekeeper Marta. It’s okay to get a flashback to their meeting, but we don’t need Orlik to explain whether or not they were married and what exactly they felt for each other and why.

On the other hand, showing the ‘fate’ of the porcelain collection – which does not happen in the novel – is above all an enrichment of the theme and a kind of grace for the protagonist. It underlines what an obsession can do to you and arouses some extra sympathy for the Baron.

All in all, ‘Utz’ is a fairly intriguing portrait of a collector, skilfully shot, directed and acted. The final shot, as Fischer walks down a tree-lined avenue towards the camera, evokes endings of film classics like ‘The Third Man’ and ‘Casablanca’, and leaves the viewer with the right feeling: a combination of satisfaction, curiosity and melancholy. Despite an at first sight not very accessible or fascinating main character, ‘Utz’ has become a beautiful, well-balanced film.

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