Munich, 1 June 1935; great-grandson of founder of the famed Hotel Adlon,
Studied art history, literature, and theater, with a degree in acting, in
Married Eleonore, a frequent collaborator on his films; son: Felix, film
Created documentaries for Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian Broadcasting),
1970–1984; directed his first feature film,
Bavarian Film Award (Germany) for Best Director, for
Fünf letzte Tage
, 1983; Berlin Film Critics Ernst Lubitsch Award for Best Comedy, 1987,
Bavarian Film Award for Best Screenplay, 1988, and Césars (France)
for Best European Film and Best Foreign Film, 1989, all for
Out of Rosenheim
; Bavarian Film Award for Best Director, for
, 1992; Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Films (Belgium) Silver
Younger and Younger
Der Vormund und sein Dichter ( The Guardian and the Poet ) (for TV)
Herr Kischott (for TV)
Celeste (+ sc)
Fünf letzte Tage ( Five Last Days ) (+ sc)
Die Schaukel ( The Swing ) (+ sc)
Zuckerbaby ( Sugarbaby ) (+sc)
Herschel und die Musik der Sterne ( Herschel and the Music of the Stars ) (for TV) (+ sc)
Out of Rosenheim ( Bagdad Café ) (+ co-sc, pr)
Rosalie Goes Shopping (+ sc, pr)
Salmonberries (+ sc)
Younger and Younger (+ co-sc, co-pr)
In der glanzvollen Welt des Hotel Adlon ( The GlamorousWorld of the Adlon Hotel ; Hotel Adlon ) (for TV) (+ sc)
Die Strausskiste ( Forever Flirt ) (+ sc)
Eat Your Heart Out (Felix Adlon) (pr)
"Dialogue on Film: Percy Adlon," interview in American Film (Los Angeles), May 1988.
Stone, Judy, "Percy Adlon," interview in Eye on the World: Conversations with International Filmmakers , Los Angeles, 1997.
Walker, B., "Percy Adlon," in Film Comment (New York), July-August 1988.
Boujut, M. "The Film Career of Percy Adlon," in Avant-scène du Cinema , November-December 1988.
Die Schonheit im Normalen finden: Die inneren Bilder des Percy Adlon , Bavarian Television, 1993.
* * *
Roughly a decade older than his more renowned compatriots in the German New Cinema, Percy Adlon began making feature films more than a decade after the remarkable early works of Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. If ultimately he has created a body of work more conventional than those of his younger contemporaries, he has still achieved a handful of works which remain important and distinctive, particularly for their mixture of cool detachment and genuine compassion for lonely eccentrics.
Following a long career in Bavarian television, largely in documentary work, Adlon received immediate international notice with Céleste , his first feature. Based upon a memoir by Marcel Proust's maidservant, the film patiently records the title character's daily activities, or more frequently her stasis, as she sits waiting for Monsieur to ring for his daily coffee—or for help if seized by an asthma attack. The film is a kind of study in restraint—not only Céleste's but the filmmaker's, as he seeks visual and emotional variety within a restricted environment. Most of the drama is set in Proust's apartment, but there are occasionally montages (handsomely composed shots, empty of people) of elegant apartment facades in Paris, or the writer's vacation beach in Normandy, or bleak, wintry vistas in Céleste's native village. Occasionally Céleste (Eva Mattes) addresses the camera directly; at other times her flashback-memories of a livelier, party-going Proust (Jurgen Arndt) weave in and out of the more somber present time of the narrative. Fragmented bursts of Franck's String Quartet punctuate silences otherwise broken only by a clock ticking or an occasional cough from the master's cork-lined bedroom; the music unexpectedly becomes live when a string quartet performs (still in fragments of music) privately for Proust and Céleste.
Obsession is a common-enough preoccupation of modernist film, but Adlon often explores devotion —not without ironic perspective or quirky humor, but never with the derision of more cynical filmmakers. Céleste, for example, is devoted but not remotely doglike or pathetically spinsterish. She appears to have a satisfactory relationship with her husband, Proust's manservant; and she is not obsequious, as Adlon establishes in an early flashback when, as a new servant, she
Less well known outside Germany but no less accomplished than Céleste is Five Last Days , which with quiet power presents just what the title alludes to: the five last days in the life of a young freedom fighter, beginning with her arrest for spreading anti-Nazi propaganda and ending with her being taken off to be hanged. The setting, again a restricted one, is Gestapo headquarters in Munich: its front office, interrogation rooms and, especially, Sophie's bedroom in a cavernous basement area. No torture or even especially callous behavior is shown, but the menace of the place is palpable—groaning basement sounds, sinister empty spaces, barking guard dogs. Again Adlon uses a striking variety of shots within confined areas but this is not a dry, academic exercise in camera placement. Rather, the film, like Céleste , is centered upon a growing friendship, here between Sophie and her older roommate Else, a long-term prisoner. The nuances of the performances, and once again an austerity in film style matching the emotional restraint of the women, make this film among Adlon's finest achievements. A touching lengthy scene in which the two women and a couple of male inmates are allowed by the guard to have a party in their room with some smuggled treats is superbly executed.
Sugarbaby , which increased Adlon's fame abroad, is filled with the sort of droll eccentricity for which he became known in America, as well as introducing his discovery, Marianne Sagebrecht, in a leading role. This film too is highly stylized, but far from austere, with its extravagant lighting scheme—neon pinks and blues, occasional slashes of gold or ghastly greens—and long takes in which the camera meanders a bit away from the actors, to the left and right in ever-wider drifts without ever quite leaving them. The tale leans toward the fantastic: a depressed, overweight funeral-parlor worker, 38, in an instant falls in love with a handsome young U-Bahn driver, 25, spies on him, seduces him with candy bars while his wife is out of town, and has night after night of fantastic sex with him until the wife beats her up on a disco floor. The film's last shot, with Marianne (as the character is named) on a subway platform proffering a candy bar to an unknown figure, or to no one, is in itself highly stylized, an abstraction of her plight.
A major part of Sugarbaby 's success is its ability to present Marianne's dogged pursuit of the subway driver with alternating amused detachment (e.g., their motorcycle ride) and serious compassion (a take of over nine minutes in which Marianne tells her lover about her earlier life of suffering and grief) without ever seeming to condescend. Another part is Sagebrecht's understated performance, memorable even in small details like her first saying "Zuckerbaby" to herself in a hushed voice, as if it were a revelation. At only one point does the comedy cross over into John Waters-style campy melodrama (rather than, say, Fassbinderish degradation), when the wife viciously attacks Marianne on the dance floor and leaves her writhing in misery, while no one makes a move to stop the violence. (A couple of Adlon's later films have strikingly Watersesque moments: the loony family acting hyper-normal at the dinner table and around the TV in Rosalie Goes Shopping , and the cartoonish lady with whom the older Mr. Younger has noisy sex in Younger and Younger. )
Sugarbaby's success led to Adlon's making a film in the United States, premiered in Germany as Out of Rosenheim and released in the States, somewhat shortened, the next year as Bagdad Café. It is certainly Adlon's only film to be turned into an American TV series, though without his participation. The trajectory of the plot is a bit predictable—two exceedingly dissimilar individuals become both friends and business partners—but films about women's friendships were relatively rare in 1988, and the pair were vividly impersonated by Marianne Sagebrecht, as an ever mildly astonished echt-Bavarian (stranded in the Mohave Desert with little to her name other than a feathered hat and her husband's lederhosen), and CCH Pounder, as a constantly exasperated and short-tempered African American owner of the cafe where Jasmin seeks shelter, then employment. Some of the supporting characters may be a little calculatedly oddball, but Jack Palance's Rudy, a cowboyish ex-Hollywood scenic painter who senses Jasmin's inner beauty and celebrates in oils her outward zaftigheit , is a memorable figure; the role revivified the actor's career. Yellow filters give the film a markedly different color scheme than Sugarbaby 's, but some camera setups of near-expressionistic stylization recall the previous film. More impressively original are Adlon's camera movements to connect the spookily empty desert spaces with the oddly cozy cafe, as in one lengthy tracking shot with assorted characters drifting on and offscreen across the dusty parking lot, and several shots following the boomerang thrown by a young vagabond, always taking us back to the cafe. The director also makes repeated use of Bob Telson's haunting soundtrack song, "I'll Be Calling You."
Adlon's second American film, Rosalie Goes Shopping , in which a German immigrant wife (Sagebrecht again) develops petty credit fraud into major capitalist enterprise, has its supporters, but the comic characters are rather one-note (particularly in comparison to the leads in Bagdad Café ), and the confessional scenes with Rosalie's appalled priest (Judge Rheinhold) are rather too predictable.
Subtler and more lingering in the imagination is Salmonberries , the last of Adlon's trilogy of films about German women making a life for themselves in the United States. Friendship is once again the theme, but the couple is even unlikelier, and certainly less comical, than the pair in Bagdad Café : an East German woman (Rosel Zech) whose husband was slain as they attempted to cross the border to the West and who is now living an embittered life as an Alaskan librarian; and a half-Inuit orphan (the singer k.d. lang, who also contributes to the soundtrack) searching for the secret of her birth. Again Adlon secures a memorable performance from a non-professional, here lang as the shy but fierce-tempered orphan for whom the librarian is at first only a tool for researching her strange name (Kotzebue) and origin, but later, on a trip to Berlin, the object of a hopeless sexual attraction. Adlon makes excellent use of another extreme environment—the snowy wastes of the Alaskan tundra—and has at least one scene of unforgettable beauty, when we see the librarian's bedroom, a shrine glowingly lit not by stained glass but by row upon row of jars of her berry jam against the windows. Memorable in an altogether different way is the Berlin hotel sequence in which the librarian tries to explain to Kotzebue why she cannot have a love affair with her: we see fragments of a night-to-dawn session, each a separate shot with its own striking camera placement, separated by fades to black.
The cleverly titled Younger and Younger returns to the cartoonishness of Rosalie in its tale of a philandering storage facility manager who becomes haunted by the ghost of his neglected wife. It does boast an extravagant performance by Donald Sutherland as the elder Younger—and a remarkable makeup job on Lolita Davidovich, who starts out as a middle-aged frump but as a ghost becomes younger and more luscious in every scene. But there is less of a truly distinctive visual scheme than in any of the earlier features, and some of the minor characters are rather palely conceived.
Following the film's commercial failure and the limited distribution of Salmonberries , Adlon seems to have retired, except for a short feature that was clearly a personal project, involving as it does his actual family and American movies. Combining documentary footage with staged scenes, In der glanzvollen Welt des Hotel Adlon is a biography of his uncle Louis Adlon (played by Percy's son Felix), who grew up in the family hotel but lived in Hollywood in the 1920s, had affairs with stars of the day (e.g., Pola Negri, played by Céleste 's Eva Mattes), and returned to Berlin only after World War II, as a Hearst correspondent, to reminisce among the ruins of the hotel. While Adlon may have other projects at hand, the film serves presently as a moving capstone to the career of someone who seems to have found his calling only in middle age and whose work took him to an oddly German-inflected America before leading back home.