I am not a big fan of substance abuse films. Even the best of them can be something of a trial to watch since they always include a substantial amount of human ruin and thus heartbreak for us viewers. Do not get me wrong, movies like “The Lost Weekend” or “Trainspotting” are excellent movies and very much recommended, but it does tear me to pieces to watch people falling apart like that.
“Café Paradis” is very much a substance abuse film and it is not anywhere in the league of the above mentioned movies. That makes it a difficult watch with few of the alleviating elements to help me through it.
This is the fourth special entry on the Danish edition of “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” and replaces “Winchester ‘73”. Some of the previous special entries have been really good and at least one of them I could imagine finding on the general List, but this one will never get there and that is just as well.
The film presents the destructive power of alcoholism through the fates of two of its victims. One is a worker, Carlo Jensen (Poul Reichhardt), who has just returned from some alcoholism treatment to his old job and his wife, Ester Jensen (Ingeborg Brams), and infant son. The other is Carlo’s superior at the shoe factory, the procurement manager Christian Birger (Ib Schønberg). He is the man on top with a flashy job, a flashy lifestyle and a very expensive wife. He is also a man with a considerable daily consumption of alcohol.
These two men are fast-tracking their lives into the gutter and (spoiler!) one will make it the other not.
Carlo has a lovely wife who really tries to help and understand Carlo. Unfortunately he also has a sister-in-law who has condemned him already and tries to get him out of her sister life. Her intrigant ways and Carlo’s low self-esteem (and self-control) sends him invariably to his local waterhole, Café Paradis to resume his drinking with his buddies there. He loses his job and almost loses his wife before he is saved by a friend who sends him to a doctor. The doctor changes his life with antabus and support from his wife and in a few years this wreck of a man, who would be shouting and crying and drinking and shouting some more, has turned himself into our favorite father, playing model railway with his son while smoking a pipe. Yup, happy ending.
Christian Birger’s story is the same and different. He is pressured by his wife, their friends and his boss to perform. His lifestyle is far too expensive and he is receiving absolutely no support from his bitch of a wife, Rita Birger (Karin Nellemose). His life hinges on him getting a crucial promotion, but at the all-important dinner with the board of directors he drinks far too much and in the most notable scene of the entire movie Christian manages to give the speech from hell and effectively kill his career. Notable for the sheer excruciating pain of watching this man screw up big time. From then on it is a one way street. The wife leaves him and her tours first the expensive bars, then the poorer ones and finally we find him, washed out on Café Paradis. He also gets treatment from a doctor, an old school friend even, but with only his old mother as support and nothing to live for he is doomed and indeed we knew that from the outset because the film opens with the police investigating the death of a drunkard found frozen stiff in the park.
This is not exactly the most inventive of plots and especially the story of Carlo is so cliché that it is even dull. Add to that a very moralizing tone and this start to look like an information campaign against alcoholism. Clearly a movie with a mission.
Ib Schønberg is the redeeming element as The Book also states. His story is the more interesting of the two and as a character Christian is more developed than Carlo. He is a pitiful character and despite his arrogance in the beginning it is difficult not to feel sorry for him. It is easy to say that he should control his drinking or stand up against his nightmare of a wife, but he just tries to cope as he best can and is betrayed by his crutch, the drink. I mentioned the infamous board dinner, but almost every scene with Birger is painful and in the end I am almost relieved to see him end his misery in the park.
The second redeeming factor is to watch life as it played out in Copenhagen in 1950. The cars, the homes, the cloth and all the things that are the same. You can still go to an average size town and find places like Café Paradis, even exact clones, and a bottle of Tuborg is exactly the same today as it was in 1950. Dammit, I even recognize the drunkards from my old town Aalborg. They would go to Boulevardcaféen, Centralcaféen, Torvebaren, Kontiki Bar or the worst of them all Fedtebrød and they look exactly like the washed up characters on Café Paradis. Yeah, we have come a long way…
I suppose a movie like “Café Paradis” get picked for the List because of its social message, that it is somehow considered an important film. I am just wondering if this is really the best Danish film could manage in this period. If that is so then that is a real tragedy.