1992 Directed by George Sluizer. Starring Armin Mueller-Stahl, Brenda Fricker, Peter Riegert, Paul Scofield.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 11, 1993
Strange breed, collectors. Passionate, obsessive and fixated. Baron von Utz (Mueller-Stahl) is one. Yet Utz is not just any collector; he's more a collector's collector. His passion is Meissen porcelain, specifically the unusual series of monkey musicians. His collection numbers in the thousands; their total worth numbers in the millions. The pieces are all on display in a room of his Prague apartment, row upon mirrored row. Set in near-contemporary Czechoslovakia, Utz's story is told in memory and flashback, not merely his own reflections but those of the odd assortment of people who knew and admired him. It's a story that you can't predict in advance, it only becomes evident through the telling, which continues through to the mysterious disappearance of Utz's collection following his death. And it's more than the story of one man's life. Based on the novel by Bruce Chatwin, Utz is a story about the existence of passion in the face of totalitarianism, about the love of beauty and delicacy in defiance of the drab consistency of Eastern European Communism. “Marxist-Leninism never came to grips with the concept of the private collection,” comments Utz. This has resulted in his collection becoming state property, all of which he's allowed to keep into his home only until his death. Utz smuggles art into Czechoslovakia and he, in a sense, is a prisoner of his collection. He cannot ever leave the country without abandoning his beloved collection. Then there is also the irony of this gentle man whose collection profited from wars, pogroms and revolutions -- the political cataclysms that cruelly abet a nimble collector. Peeling back the layers of this story about a musty collector of fine china objects reveals a story of contemporary moral significance. So much of this movie's success is due to its brilliant cast. Mueller-Stahl as Utz is dark, funny, brooding and focused as he creates this portrait of an all-too-human being. The characters surrounding him are no less precise, no less curious. Riegert as the New York-based art buyer who ostensibly drives the narrative in his quest to fathom the mystery of what has happened to the deceased Utz's collection; Fricker as Utz's laconic housekeeper, as devoted to her apparent employer as Utz is to his porcelain; and Scofield as the delicious Dr. Orloff, Utz's best friend and kindred spirit whose object of study has dichotomously diverged from the woolly mammoth to the common housefly. Utz was shot in Prague, which adds mightily to the atmosphere, though the dialogue is all in English. Sluizer (he of both the Dutch and American versions of The Vanishing) directs the proceedings seamlessly and intelligently. But most of all, I remember certain images: that of a scene in a Prague restaurant (which due to a menu misprint only serves crap, rather than carp) shot through the perspective of a fish tank; that of a girl swimming languorously with a goose; that of a group of pallbearers stepping precariously around an immovable scrubwoman as they gingerly walk down a church aisle. Utz is ultimately a movie as delicate, timeless and beautiful as the Meissen porcelain that graces the frame.