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‘Utz’ (NR)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 22, 1993

"Utz" is primarily a vehicle for German character actor Armin Mueller-Stahl. And now that we have your attention, let's also note that it is the definitive, if not the only, movie about collecting fine porcelain. Meissen fanatics gather round.

Mueller-Stahl, whom American audiences might remember from "Music Box" or "Avalon," brings a touch of Old World ennui to the role of Kaspar Joachim von Utz, a gloomy Czech baron who has spent his life acquiring, studying and playing with his 1,000-plus pieces of porcelain. Mostly Meissen figurines (treasures on loan from the Meissen factory), they are to become the property of the state on his imminent demise.

But the communists are such clods, he can't bear to think of the delicate Harlequins or monkey musicians under their care. He has already made plans to sell the multimillion-dollar collection through an American gallery owner, Marius Fischer (Peter Riegert), an avariciously congenial capitalist who hurries to Prague to claim the collection when he learns that Utz has been felled by a stroke. By the time he arrives, however, the body is buried and the collection gone.

Now Fischer is left to unravel the mystery of the man in hopes of recovering his amazing collection. In this, he has the help of the baron's friend Dr. Vaclav Orlik (Paul Scofield), a cheerful communist-baiter who collects houseflies because they are not communal insects, but anarchists and Don Juans. The international cast also includes Brenda Fricker, sensibly shod and dowdy as a Soviet tank as the baron's devoted maid, Marta. The last to see the collection, Marta also disappears after Utz's funeral, a tatty affair designed to showcase the communists' lack of spiritualism.

Utz is gone, but, courtesy of flashbacks, flashforwards and other contrivances, not forgotten. He haunts the movie, much the way he haunted the New World Order, a ghostly reminder of Czechoslovakia's vanished grandeur, glimpsed here in a side trip to Utz's boyhood at the family's palatial estate. Though he learned to appreciate porcelain at his grandmother's knee, "wars, pogroms and revolutions" were the enablers of his addiction as priceless pieces were left in their wake.

An adaptation of the late Bruce Chatwin's novel, "Utz" the film is a pretty but uninspired work from George Sluizer, the director of both the Dutch and American versions of "The Vanishing." The project seems an obvious one for Sluizer, what with entire ways of life disappearing -- not to mention people and figurines. Obsessed with obsessives, he must also have been drawn to Utz's cold-natured madness, not that he ever really explains it. For that, we must rely on the baron's rhapsodic soliloquies on porcelain as the alchemical perfection, the antidote to decay, the source for immortality and so on. Now, there's bull in the china shop for you.

Copyright The Washington Post

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