What To Do In Case Of Fire ?

REVIEW by Willard Manus

WHAT TO DO IN CASE OF FIRE? sounds like a grade-school instructional film, but don't let the title fool you. This is a raucous, in-your-face, punk-rock feature from Germany that boldly and unashamedly takes up the cause of dissidence and radicalism and flaunts it like a banner.

As directed by Gregor Schnitzler and written by Stefan Dahnert and Anne Wild, FIRE looks at a generation of rebels a decade after they took to the streets in protest against bourgeois, conventional society. Unlike other films of this ilk, such as THE SECAUCUS SEVEN and THE BIG CHILL, which are steeped in disillusionment and offer characters who have turned their back on protest and become, for the most part, career-minded yuppies, FIRE has a fresh, contrary point of view toward rebellion, one that exalts it.

A little background is needed here. In the 70s and 80s, a generation of young Germans (inspired by bands like the Sex Pistols) took to the streets in a unique form of resistance. Unlike the rebels of the 60s, who were mostly students and academics with a political, antiwar-agenda, these refuseniks were largely working-class and uneducated--and uninterested in revolution or changing society. They simply wanted to live in their own world, in their own fashion.

In West Berlin alone there were more than 10,000 vacant buildings (even though there was a shortage of living space). Soon young Germans from all over the country began occupying one building after another. A new street culture developed in these "squats."

When the landlords cut off power and water to these buildings, the defiant inhabitants improvised ways to get around these problems. They also devised ways to defend themselves against police raids (by erecting steel doors, putting up barbed-wire barriers). In the face of political and economic pressure, they also became more militant and ideological themselves, fighting the power of the state in many other ways.

Eventually the establishment conceeded the game to the squatters and offered them long-term leases and much-needed revovation work and repairs. The squatters were turned into tenants and by the mid-90s the occupied buildings disappeared from the Berlin and Hamburg cityscapes.

FIRE looks at six fictional characters who once shared a life of creative anarchy together. Only two of them have remained true to their former principles: Tim (Til Schweiger, a superstar in Germany, he has also appeared in such American films as Driven and the upcoming Max and Joe), and Hotte (Martin Feifel in a powerhouse performance), a wheelchair-bound hothead. The other four have become legitimate members of society. Maik (Sebastien Blomberg) is the head of a trendy ad agency; Nele (Nadja Uhl) is a struggling single mom; Flo (Doris Schretzmayer) is about to get married; and Terror (Matthias Mataschke) is, of all things, a public prosecutor.

Having long gone separate ways, the Berlin Six are forced to regroup when a homemade bomb they had planted in an empty building in 1987 suddenly explodes, injuring some people. A police investigation is launched, headed by the Kojak-like detective Manowsky (Klaus Lowitsch).

The six are put to the test by the investigation. It would be all too easy for them to simply turn their backs on leading suspects Tim and Hotte and protect their own butts. Still, they once were best friends sharing a communal life and deeply-felt beliefs. Are they willing to betray all that--and their ex-comrades as well?

The question is explored in provocative, satirical, fast-moving fashion by Schnitzler and his young but expert crew: cameraman Andreas Berger, editor Albrecht Konrad and composers Stephen Zacharias and Stephan Gade, who have put together a suitably hot, hard-driving score. As for the ensemble of actors, they contribute performances of an award-winning calibre and help make the film the success it is.