The Prisoner of St Petersburg

(Ian Pringle, Australia/Germany, 1990)


Ian Pringle's The Prisoner of St Petersburg is an oddity in the context of mainstream Australian cinema. The film is set in Berlin, photographed in beautiful black-and-white, and has an international cast speaking an array of languages. It is in fact an Australian-German co-production (that's 'co-poduction' according to the end credits).

The opportunity for Pringle to make such a personal and idiosyncratic film comes no doubt from a combination of canniness – he gathers around himself a sympathetic band of producers and collaborators – and good fortune. His connection with the celebrated German director Wim Wenders, whose work Pringle often echoes, probably also helped.

The film is odd on many other levels. Young Jack (Noah Taylor from The Year My Voice Broke [1987]) wanders bug-eyed around a desolate Berlin. He is a prisoner of St Petersburg because he is obsessed, to the point of insanity, with the works of the great Russian novelists, particularly Gogol and Dostoevsky.

Speaking only in Russian for a time (helpfully subtitled), and overcome by extravagant inner visions, he acts out great Russian scenes of murder and epileptic trances. Or at least he tries to: in reality, the results look comically pitiful.

Jack does not remain alone for long. First in the street, and later in a bar, he spies the woman of his dreams, Elena (the radiant Solveig Dommartin from Wenders' Wings of Desire [1987]). She is lost in a state of semi-conscious dissipation and hardly notices Jack, but her uptight little friend Johanna (a wonderful screen debut from Katja Teichmann) falls for him almost immediately. Together, this motley trio stumbles through a long Berlin night, trying to hot-wire cars, swearing at strangers, the whole time talking to each other at cross-purposes.

The film takes on familiarly weighty arthouse themes: self-discovery, alienation, non-communication, redemption through love. It flaunts a decidedly existential philosophy: the characters, lacking any significant past, decide, at a moment's whim, to throw away the everyday world and pursue their deepest desires.

Pringle is good at portraying all the strange peregrinations the trio experience while they explore their suspended, heightened moment of existential limbo. But he is not so resourceful when it comes to actually taking them anywhere, into a new consciousness or a new way of living. When a philosophising Irishman announces that "only the love of a good woman can save you from being a prisoner of St Petersburg", audiences groan and jeer at the sentiment, and Pringle seems hardly to believe it himself.

The Prisoner of St Petersburg is best appreciated as a comedy: a nutty, whacked-out, shambling, dusk-to-dawn comedy. Certainly Noah Taylor, with his bizarrely exaggerated mannerisms, deserves to be compared to Jerry Lewis. But everyone in the film does a quietly comic turn, whether in the process of massacring the English language, downing another drink, striking a quizzical pose, or falling to the ground. There is a great deal here to enjoy, if you can free yourself from the tyranny of the storyline and its dubious morality.

There are too few eccentric films in the Australian cinema and, conversely, too many that are primly conventional, straitjacketed by professional rules and commercial formulae. The Prisoner of St Petersburg may not be a masterpiece, nor is it likely to live terribly long in cinematic memory. But its eccentricity is brave, and should be valued.

Faced with an endless procession of local films that wear their Australianness on their sleeves, Pringle flies off to another country and chooses to depict the most introspective or the most universal themes and situations. The landscape is not Melbourne or Sydney, but neither ultimately, is it really Berlin. It is purely the landscape of Pringle's imagination, and it springs from a compelling twilight sensibility that is, in its own secret way, authentically Australian.

© Adrian Martin April 1990

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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