Director / Producer / Screenplay / Editor: Alan Berliner
Production Co.: Independent Television Service
Cinematography: Alan Berliner, Phil Abraham & D.W. Leitner
Oscar Berliner
Alan Berliner
their friends and relatives
60 minutes
16 mm
No Certificate (exempt)
Caligari Film Prize, Berlin Film Festival 1997
First Prize, Prix du Visions du Réel, Nyon 1997
Golden Spire, San Francisco International Film Festival 1997
Print donated by the New Zealand Film Festival
Those familiar with his earlier portrait of his grandfather, Intimate Stranger (q.v.), were prepared for the telling of family secrets, artfully organized. This time he goes after his reclusive, stoical, bitter, taciturn father. The first efforts are comic, like trying to get a stone to speak. The father refuses to see why his story would interest anyone else: "My life is nothing." Undaunted, the filmmaker-son confronts him with a variety of strategies (research into family roots, tough probes about the parents' divorce) to get him to open up. The purpose is both aesthetic and personal: to find the meaning of this man's life by transmuting it into artistically tellable form, and to have a long-deferred heart-to-heart talk with his father.
The generosity of Berliner is that the Oedipal struggle is both acknowledged (cutaways to prizefights) and worked through: this son does not want to 'slay' his father so much as get him off the mat to go a few more rounds. What initially seems like a one-sided fight (verbal artist in the prime of his life versus old man about to shut down) generates immense perverse sympathy for this difficult old man. Triangulating the dynamic is the filmmaker's sister Lynn, who brings a caring analysis to all the family members (including their bombshell of a mother), while acknowledging that her father's capacity to love has dried up. Miraculously, her judgement proves wrong, when the father is seen doting near the end on his new grandchild.
I know no one working in personal films today who can do so well what Alan Berliner does: bring dramatically alive the intense agony and ambivalence and love within families. His dazzling technical mastery of the relation between sound and image is always kept in the service of deep psychological truths.
- Phillip Lopate, Film Comment, 12/96
The filmmaker Alan Berliner confronts his crusty, isolated old father, seeks his family history and links past to present and future and man to mankind with humour and poignancy.
Mr. Berliner's confrontation between father and son lights up with verbal and cinematic humour as it delves into the family's past, its psychological and societal roots and the father's broken marriage and its repercussions.
This portrait juxtaposes the verbal responses of its reluctant subject, Oscar Berliner, with film - a knock-down, drag-out battle in a boxing ring, photos taken in World War II, home movies, scenes of old New York and communities of Eastern European Jews - as it contradicts the words the aging West Sider speaks at its outset: "I'm just an ordinary guy who's lived an ordinary life. I was in the Army, I got married, I raised a family - worked hard. I had my own business. That's all. That's nothing to make a picture about."
In Nobody's Business Alan Berliner illustrates the power of fine art to transform life.
- Lawrence Van Gelder, The New York Times, 8/10/96
So much of my father's life has been a mystery to me. I've always needed to know why he's chosen to live the way he lives - reclusive, pessimistic, cynical about life. Over the years, no matter how hard I tried, I could never change him, could never affect him, or even infect with my own enthusiasm...
My father is also quite adamant about his own insignificance, taking almost a perverse pride in having lived an ordinary, average, unremarkable life... Unacceptable! Oscar Berliner cannot live for 79 years and tell me his life is nothing, was nothing. I'm much too alive as a human being to accept that attitude from him. So the more he articulated his own ordinariness, the more motivated I became to prove him wrong...
- Alan Berliner, The Independent Film & Video Monthly, 5/97
How do Mr. Berliner's explorations manage to avoid the pitfalls of the family film? For starters,.they are dramatically tight (each no more than an hour long); they are full of juicy conflict and contradiction, innovative in their cinematic technique, unpredictable in their structures, and they spring from a high degree of preliminary analysis. This is cooked, not raw, material.
- Philip Lopate, New York Times, 12/1/97
The son's relationship with the father is fraught with tense personal issues. he wants to unlock not only his father's store of secrets, but also to reclaim his family history through his oldest remaining relative.
Oscar, at 79, is a tough sell. His crinkled, basset-hound features become most animated when contradicting, insulting, refusing, negating, or denouncing something in response to his son's ceaseless inquiries. A good part of this obstinacy stems from a reclusive man's sincere belief that a film about his ordinary life is an utterly useless project - in addition to being nobody's business. He complies at least somewhat with his son's efforts to document him, as a father indulging a foolish child, but never for a moment buys the premise that every soul is deserving of enumeration, that no life is devoid of significance...
The unasked question facing the viewer is: Who's being more unreasonable? The filmmaker, pressuring his father to open up? Or the father, pressuring his son to let the matter drop? Oscar remains unyielding, but Berliner is fully aware that this intransigence makes for dramatic tension and therefore a crackling good film. At the same time, as this man's son he struggles to penetrate his steely negativity and resolve a relationship even as he documents it.
- Mitch Albert, The Independent Film & Video Monthly, 5/97
About three weeks after the screening, I went to his apartment and noticed that he had framed the postcard announcement for the film and put it on his bookshelf. He's never done anything like that before!
- Alan Berliner