Percy Adlon’s Trek to ‘Bagdad Cafe’

When Wim Wenders spotted fellow German film director Percy Adlon across the room at Musso and Frank’s, Wenders rushed over to his colleague, enveloping him with a hearty embrace.

Obviously delighted by the chance meeting, the twosome regaled each other--in German--with tales of their latest Hollywood adventures. The language barrier couldn’t disguise an almost boyish camaraderie--you felt these two artists-in-exile could’ve first met after skipping school to catch a double feature in the balcony of a Berlin movie house.

“We do have a real camaraderie,” Adlon said later, after ordering a thick American steak. “But we’d never met until a few months ago in Berlin. We were seated at dinner together and discovered that we’d both been planning very big, difficult pictures. So we had this emotional, two-hour conversation and in an instant, became friends for life.”

Nothing bonds directors together like the possibility of impending disaster.

“We feel like brothers now,” said the 52-year-old director, whose latest film, “Bagdad Cafe,” opened to glowing reviews here last week. “You get very scared by these ambitious projects. We’ve both had our little films that did well, but now. . . . “


He flashed a crooked grin. “Now we’re about to make our ‘Heaven’s Gates’!”

It’s a measure of the distance between European-cinema economics and Hollywood that Adlon could imagine a potential $10-million project (easily less than the average studio film) as a boondoggle of “Heaven’s Gate” proportions.

In fact, Adlon’s latest film, “Bagdad Cafe,” which stars Marianne Sagebrecht, CCH Pounder and Jack Palance, cost only $2 million, though he insisted that budget is “quite big by European art-film standards.”

It should easily make its money back. Though playing in only five cities, “Bagdad” had a strong early showing, having earned nearly $200,000 playing in just 11 theaters. The critics have been just as enthusiastic.

Newsweek’s David Ansen called the film a “genuine oddball vision,” saying that Adlon’s cinematic style has a “sweetness that lingers like a desert sunset.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley called Adlon’s film a “gingerly happy little fable” that plays “something like a Sam Shepard play by way of the Black Forest.”

A dapper man with an expansive personality and a fondness for hats (this evening he wore a felt fedora), Adlon exudes a refreshing air of innocence about Hollywood--past or present. Asked about Palance’s role as a retired Hollywood set painter-turned-artist, Adlon admitted, “I didn’t even know who Palance was until someone showed me a picture of him--then I said, ‘Oh, him! He’d be perfect.’ ”

Born in Bavaria, Adlon worked as a TV documentarian before emerging as a writer-director of such acclaimed films as “Celeste” and “Sugarbaby.” Though “Bagdad” is his first English-language film, it’s safe to say it won’t be his last--he’s fascinated by the rich, textured landscape of America, a country he’s adopted as a second home.

(His proposed “ambitious” project, tentatively titled “Louis With a Star,” would dramatize the life of his uncle, Louis Adlon, who lived in America, married Marion Davies’ sister and became part of William Randolph Hearst’s circle of friends.)

Just as Wenders’ “Paris, Texas” seemed obsessed with America’s rootless drifters and jungles of neon lights, “Bagdad Cafe” is equally intoxicated by its enchanted desert landscape. The chronicle of an unlikely friendship between a stranded German tourist and the cranky black proprietor of a crumbling truckstop-motel, “Cafe” displays the work of an artist bedazzled by America’s uniquely desolate terrain.

“I like places where nothing is there--what I call zero places,” said Adlon, who has frequently traveled through America with his wife--and collaborator--Eleonore.

“For me, the desert is that great empty place. It’s a wonderful horizontal stage. When you put a vertical figure into that picture, you have an image. When you put two figures into the picture, you have suspense. And when you put in three figures. . .” He clapped his hands triumphantly, “you have drama!”

Adlon discovered “Bagdad’s” desert setting during a Christmas, 1985, driving trip with his family. They stopped for coffee at a tiny crossroads cafe near Ludlow, Calif. “We were looking for a place we’d seen on the map called Bagdad, but we never found it because the town had disappeared,” said Adlon, his voice tinged with a touch of wonder. “Apparently the last pieces of concrete that marked the town had been removed. No one lived there anymore.”

Adlon raised his glass of wine, as if to make a toast.

“I guess if you’re looking for a zero place, what could be better than a name on the map that didn’t exist anymore,” he said. “That’s what makes America so fascinating for us Europeans--our countries are so old and people stay in the same place for so long. But here, everyone is so mobile that they’d just picked up and moved on and the town is gone!

“I love being on your open roads where there’s nothing but rich fields and flat land. It’s where I let all my wounds heal.”

Adlon’s “wounds” are the aches and pains of a struggling storyteller. Like many writer-directors, he prefers his work on the set to his labors at the typewriter.

“I always found it hard to start on a story, so hard that I would get into a panic,” he explained. “Finally, I invented a trick. I paid a woman $150 to sit opposite me when I was trying to write and act like a taxi meter. She would say to me harshly, ‘Come on. The meter is running!’ And I would be forced to concentrate and start my work.”

Adlon offered a sheepish grin. “Yes, it’s true. I did my first two scripts that way. But now I write with my wife, which is much more enjoyable--and less expensive!”

Adlon moved to feature films after years of work--as both an actor and director--in German theater, radio and TV. “Initially, I hated the idea of doing fiction, because I found it so artificial, so far from the truth,” he explained. “But as you work on little things, they become bigger and one day you find out that your structure doesn’t fit your theme anymore. I had wanted to do a documentary on a Swiss writer, but I decided his life was so dramatic that I began writing dialogue--and suddenly I was making a fiction film.”

One of the charms of “Bagdad Cafe” is how it treats each character in the film, no matter how minor, with equal curiosity and insight. It’s a trait Adlon first developed making TV documentaries, which focused not on celebrities, but ordinary folk. When he shot a portrait of a Bavarian village, he ignored the mayor and police chief, preferring to interview a farmer’s wife.

One of his favorite films examined a German orchestra attendant who spent his days cleaning and caring for the ensemble’s instruments. “If you looked really close, you could just see the maestro, barely visible, walking in the background of a few shots,” he recalled. “It was funny, because he was very jealous. We had to show him the film, because he was so concerned about how he looked--even though he was just in the background of the shots!”

As a director, Adlon has developed a patient, slyly inventive narrative style that often reveals more from observation than action. “I don’t like colorful acting,” he said. “I don’t give my actors psychological explanations, all that acting school business. That’s not film making. I want the actors to capture the spirit--and the rhythm--of the script.

“For example, Marianne Sagebrecht is a person who talks a lot in real life--she has a wonderful personality. But for the movie, where she’s an outsider who’s not sure of herself, I thought her character shouldn’t speak so much. At least not with her voice, but with her body. I wanted her to express with her skin what she’d express with words in real life.”

Adlon says he still has “30 happy years left” to make movies. “I’m old enough not to be spoiled, but young enough to still enjoy it,” he said. “Directors are like conductors--they just get better and better.”

Adlon particularly relished working on “Bagdad” with so many black actors, an experience which reminded him of his own ethnic roots. “Black actors have many wonderful theatrical and comic gifts which have a lot in common with our Bavarian culture and theater,” he explained. “We’re very earthy and instinctual--they call us the German Africans. You can see lots of connections--our yodels are like the African drums. And our folk dancing and traditional costumes are much like the ones you see in Africa.”

He wagged his head. “We’re not like the German Protestants--they’re very medieval, stiff, old blood. We have a strong Bavarian Catholic tradition, with lots of life and color and eroticism and emotion.”

He lifted his wineglass. “The same things that are good about the movies.”