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Utz Reviews

Dutch director George Sluizer's UTZ is a wry comedy enlivened by Armin Mueller-Stahl's Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear award-winning performance as a man with a strange obsession. Mueller-Stahl plays the Polish Baron Kaspar Von Utz, who as a child becomes fascinated by German Meissen porcelain figures--meticulously hand-wrought, kitsch replicas of everything from beautiful countesses to an orchestra comprised entirely of monkeys. Under Poland's communist regime, Utz has had to shelter his family's fortune outside of his homeland. As an adult, his sole indulgence--his driving obsession--is to build up his Meissen collection. Purportedly for health reasons, he makes occasional trips to Germany and Switzerland where, with access to the family fortune, he is able to bid for his beloved porcelain, which he then smuggles back into Poland. Mostly to facilitate safe storage of his treasures--with the monkey orchestra the centerpiece--Utz enters into a marriage of convenience with Marta (Brenda Fricker), whose life he once saved from angry neighbors in her home village as they were about to execute her as a witch. Marta becomes his housekeeper and cook, as well as witness to Utz's occasional flings with porcine opera divas. Utz's only other social contacts are Dr. Orlik (Paul Scofield), a rabble-rousing royalist with whom he has lunch each and every Thursday in the same restaurant, and Marius Fisher (Peter Riegert), a New York porcelain dealer who meets Utz after being outbid by him for the final "member" of the monkey orchestra. After viewing Utz's priceless collection--and witnessing his strange ecstatic ceremony of fondling and manipulating the figures to classical music--Fisher keeps in close contact. He sells Utz occasional figurines, but he's more interested in the fate of the collection upon Utz's death. When Utz suffers a debilitating stroke, Orlik suggests to Fisher that it might be the right time to make an offer. Before he can do so, however, Utz suffers a second, fatal stroke. Rushing to Utz's Prague home, Fisher is shocked to discover that the entire collection has vanished. Finding no leads at the state museum, Fisher tries to visit Marta, but is unsuccessful. While Marta hides from Fisher in her house, a flashback reveals that, on the night before his death, she helped Utz destroy his entire collection. Sluizer is best known in the US for having directed both versions of THE VANISHING, a superb 1990 Dutch thriller remade in tawdry style by 20th Century Fox in 1993. UTZ was filmed in between the two suspense dramas and displays, like the more cerebral Dutch original, a fascination with the perversity of the human mind. In THE VANISHING, the decision to commit a random murder with infinite care and planning brings the villain a kind of spiritual peace. Utz's motivations are only slightly more grounded in a recognizable reality. It never occurs to him to leave Poland, though it is an environment in every way repressive to a man of his background and refinement--he suffers the double stigma of being a rich Jew in a communist state. Ultimately, we see that it is precisely the repressive nature of his homeland that drives Utz to his unique form of self-expression. As an artist of obsession, Sluizer has a remarkably light touch. He is always in control, examining Utz with the eye of a psychic surgeon, every word, movement and gesture in some way both increasing our understanding of Utz while at the same time deepening his mystery. Intermixed with all this unbearable heaviness of being, however, is also a wry sense of humor, conveyed here chiefly through Mueller-Stahl's masterful performance. For all his oddness, Utz is the only character in the film who seems to enjoy his life, and Mueller-Stahl brings him vividly to life, psychic warts and all. Despite the drubbing he received from critics and at the box office for his Americanized VANISHING, Sluizer is a filmmaker of rare talent and intelligence whose films go down like Hitchcock's self-described "pieces of cake." (Adult situations.)