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Richard Holbrooke's "Bing Bang Approach to Negotiations."

U.S. Peace negotiator Richard Holbrooke. He was the chief architect of the Dayton Peace Accord that ended the war in the former Yugoslavia. He has just returned from the region. His new book will be published in June "To End A War." (Random House)


Other segments from the episode on May 27, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 27, 1998: Interview with Richard Holbrooke; Interview with John Powers.


Date: MAY 27, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 052701np.217
Head: To End a War
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Richard Holbrooke was the chief architect of the Dayton Peace Accords, which ended the Balkan War in late 1995. Now, he's written a memoir offering a behind-the-scenes look at the process. It's called "To End A War."

The Balkan War had shocked the world with the siege of Sarajevo and the forced relocation and the slaughter of Muslims in what became known as "ethnic cleansing." Holbrooke first tried shuttle diplomacy, meeting separately with the heads of Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and the Bosnian Serbs.

But when that stalled, he decided his only chance for a settlement was to bring them all together in what he describes as the "big bang" approach to negotiations -- lock everyone up in one compound until they reach agreement.

He insisted that the talks be held in the U.S., enabling the American mediators and President Clinton to exert maximum control. I asked Holbrooke if bringing the warring leaders together changed the dynamics.

AMBASSADOR RICHARD HOLBROOKE, U.S. SPECIAL ENVOY TO THE BALKANS, AUTHOR, "TO END A WAR": Milosevic, the President of Yugoslavia -- the man most responsible for starting the war -- cast himself as the man who would now help end it. In a sense, Milosevic was both the arsonist and the fireman. He caused the fire, now he was going to help put it out.

Izetbegovic, the President of Bosnia -- the Muslim leader who was the primary victim of the war, became the most difficult person. He was leading a mixed Bosnian delegation that included Bosnian Moslems, Croats, Serbs, Jews. And his delegation reflected all the complexity of Bosnia itself. And as the conference proceeded, he became more and more withdrawn. His delegation became more and more fractious.

Tudjman, the President of Croatia, sat high and proud, separate from the other two. Tudjman in the end proved to be the critical variable. We couldn't get an agreement without his support, and he extracted a price. So in a sense, Tudjman of Croatia was the big winner at Dayton.

But the biggest winner of all was the West because a war which 300,000 people had died in, 2.5 million had become refugees -- many of them crowding Western Europe; a war which threatened to metastasize across its borders and spread south into Kosovo and north back into Croatia was ended.

And since then, the NATO forces which have gone into Bosnia have -- have kept the peace and enforced Dayton with no loss of life and no injury at all. And this is compared to 1,000 UN peacekeepers who were wounded or killed during the rather tragic UN period.

GROSS: Occasionally, you would threaten to shut down the talks. When would you use that as a stick -- as an incentive. And what are the dangers of -- of over-using a threat like that?

HOLBROOKE: Well, the first -- we set in our own minds an arbitrary 15-day deadline, based on our studies of Jimmy Carter's Camp David diplomacy in 1978 between the Israelis and the Egyptians, and just based on the feeling that people couldn't stay much longer cooped up. I, in fact, had a long talk with President Carter about this issue.

Fifteen days came and went with no visible progress on the key territorial issues, although we'd done a lot on other issues. And, as I said a moment ago, we had -- we had already solved the question of Croatia retrieving its lost lands.

So, we began to set arbitrary deadlines based on the travels back and forth to Dayton by Secretary of State Christopher. And we'd say look, Christopher's going to come back in four days. We have to have this problem solved -- and so on and so forth.

And we made steady but very slow progress. So finally, in the worst bluff I ever performed, on Saturday the 18th, I told my assistant to go around and tell everybody we were leaving the next day and to start collecting their bills. And nobody moved. Nobody fell for this bluff.

So on Sunday, I asked everybody in the American delegation to pile their luggage out in the courtyard in full view. We left it sitting there four or five hours. We put it in trucks. We carted it off to the airport. And nobody moved. And everybody could tell we were bluffing.

And so we came back, unpacked our bags and went into the final 48 hours. What finally turned the tide was an ultimatum that we gave, with the full backing of President Clinton, warren Christopher and I gave on the last night -- the night of November 20th -- we gave everybody one more hour to decide. The Bosnian Muslims refused to agree to the -- to conclude the negotiations, even though they had 95 percent of what they wanted. They just couldn't decide.

And so, around midnight on the evening of November 20th, we distributed a failure statement and most of us went to sleep.

GROSS: What's a "failure statement?"

HOLBROOKE: We gave out the statement that we said we would give at 10 o'clock the following morning, announcing failure. During the night, Milosevic, who was determined not to leave without an agreement, met with some of my team -- not myself. And they talked to him throughout the night.

And in the morning, we woke up to an extraordinary situation. The Bosnian Foreign Minister Muhammed Sacirbey had gone to the Holiday Inn outside Dayton and told every reporter there that the U.S. had given an ultimatum and was going to announce failure, which was true.

The television was full of the news that the announcement was about to be made. Seven or eight hundred reporters were standing outside the gates waiting to report the failure. It was already worldwide broadcast. The president met with his team at the White House to decide how to proceed -- and with, I might add, some ambivalence, because the domestic advisers to President Clinton were leery of an agreement, because an agreement would require him to deploy 20,000 American troops into Bosnia to keep the peace, and this was less than a year before the election and they were afraid that this would be politically unpopular.

And so with that as background, about eight in the morning, we were having our final staff meeting. I had already composed in my head a mental personal statement saying I'd done the best I could and we were -- we had nothing to be ashamed out. We'd achieved several things and we hoped the ceasefire would hold, but we couldn't reach an agreement. And it was back to the Europeans to try again.

And we were sitting in our staff meeting when my wife Kati Martan (ph), who was out there with me, burst into the room and said: "Milosevic is out in the parking lot in the snow without an overcoat. He wants to see you right away."

So Christopher and I went back to my room and Milosevic came in and said: "I want to walk the last mile for peace. I'll make one more compromise." And he offered us a compromise on the last outstanding issue -- the status of the city of Brcko.

And then we went over to see Tudjman. And I remember so vividly Tudjman listening to our explanation of the proposal. And then he leaned forward, and slammed his fist down on the table and said: "get peace. Get peace now. Make Izetbegovic agree." And he shook his fist about six inches from Warren Christopher's face.

And Christopher and I left the room.

GROSS: So what did you do -- what did you do to try to get Izetbegovic, the President of Bosnia, to agree to the peace accord?

HOLBROOKE: Well, at that point, Christopher and I walked the 50 yards from Tudjman's barracks. All these barracks' were surrounding a small parking lot, so they were really -- when we talk about proximity talks, we're talking about a minute to two minutes apart.

And we went into Izetbegovic and I outlined the deal to Izetbegovic and his two senior advisers -- his Foreign Minister Sacirbey and his Prime Minister Silajdzic. And -- who disliked each other intensely. And there was a long pause, and Izetbegovic -- this distant man who had spent eight years in jail; who was tough as nails and had kept his country together, but tended to look backwards rather than forwards; at past injustice, rather than future opportunities.

He looked at us and he said: "it is an unjust peace." And then he paused and, you know, we could hear our hearts beating, he paused and said: "but my people need peace. We'll go ahead."

And I could see the other two Bosnians in the room -- the prime minister and the foreign minister -- just almost rising to argue, and I leaned into Christopher and said: "let's get out of here fast before they change their minds." And we practically bolted.

As we left, we said: "OK, we'll announce it at three o'clock." We went back to our room, which was 50 yards away, called the president; asked President Clinton to announce it at 11:30 from the Oval Office, which he did, in order to lock them in.

And, that was it. We had the initialing ceremony at three o'clock in the afternoon and the formal signing in Paris two weeks later.

GROSS: My guest is Richard Holbrooke, the chief architect of the Dayton peace talks, which ended the war in the Balkans in 1995. He's written a new memoir called To End A War. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Richard Holbrooke is my guest, and he was the chief architect of the Dayton Peace Accords. He's written a new book about that called To End A War.

You've described Milosevic, who most experts see as the man who has primary responsibility for starting the war, you describe him as both the guy who set the fire and the guy who acted as the fireman trying to put it out. And now you're back negotiating with him again -- this time about Kosovo. And so I'm wondering if you think it was a mistake to let him stay in power, even though he was the person who got the peace process unjammed?

HOLBROOKE: Terry, we didn't -- the issue here was not to remove him from power. That was not what we went to Dayton for.

GROSS: That wasn't on the menu.

HOLBROOKE: Nor was it -- it wasn't in our capability.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HOLBROOKE: If we could remove bad guys from power, I would say Saddam Hussein and an earlier incarnation Pol Pot and a whole slew of other thugs would be high on our list. Milosevic rules by dictatorial and undemocratic means, and that is a tragedy for his people. He is, however, the President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which is the remnant of what used to be old Yugoslavia. And that includes Serbia, Montenegro, and, as you mentioned a moment ago, Kosovo.

And we have to deal with him as such, just as during the Cold War we dealt with Brezhnev and other Soviet leaders; and we dealt with Mao Tse Tung and other communist leaders. That -- that's not the issue. The issue is in Kosovo, as in Bosnia, although Kosovo is in many ways a more complicated problem, although not as high level of violence and killing, the issue is: how do we get these issues under control?

How do we prevent wars in the heart of Europe from breaking out, which can throw Europe at the end of the century back to where it was at the beginning -- and notably, in the same area where Europe wrecked itself at the beginning of the century.

GROSS: When the times that you've dealt with Milosevic, the head of Serbia, have you felt that you were dealing with evil incarnate -- which is often the way he's been portrayed?

HOLBROOKE: I -- you know, I've -- I've dealt with so many leaders over the last 25 years who represented things alien to the American tradition. And with Milosevic, I felt I was dealing and continued to deal with a person whose behavior and style and activities are just totally incompatible with those that we believe in.

But the word "evil" is a very powerful word, and I want to depersonalize it. There is evil in the world. It's something that we have to confront. But the time that I felt that I was in the presence of evil, incarnate evil, was the extraordinary 13-hour negotiation we had to have in September of '95, outside Belgrade with Mladic and Karadzic -- the two indicted war criminals who led the Bosnian Serbs.

These were hands-on murderers. It was like spending a day with Pol Pot, and having spent most of my career in Asia, I was acutely aware of the sense that this was the Pol Pot of Europe.

GROSS: Well, before you even met with them, you had to decide whether it was morally justifiable to actually meet with them as part of the peace talks 'cause after all, they were indicted war criminals. So what made you decide that it was the appropriate thing to do to meet with them?

HOLBROOKE: We debated this on the plane flying into Belgrade. I said to my team: "look, sooner or later we're probably gonna end up meeting with these two terrible men -- Radovan Karadzic, the political leader of the Bosnian Serbs; and Ratko Mladic, the murderous general who runs the military. And each of you has a choice here: do you want to meet with them or not? Do you want to shake hands with them or not?"

We unanimously concluded, as had previous negotiators, that it's better to deal with these men to save the lives of people who are still alive, as the best way of honoring those who had already died, rather than get up on one's high moral horse and refuse to meet with them.

However, because they were indicted war criminals, we made clear to them and to Milosevic that they couldn't enter the United States or any European country -- Western European country -- without facing immediate arrest under UN resolutions.

Now, in making the decision to meet with them, I happened to have been very influenced personally by two books that my wife Kati Martan had written -- one on Bernadotte and one on Wallenberg. Both those men -- both Swedes -- had met in 1944-45 with Eichmann (ph) and Himmler to save hundreds of thousands of Jews throughout Central Europe, by meeting with these horrendous people, and they had saved lives. And I thought that was a valid model.

So in the end, we met with these people. I chose not to shake hands with them. Some of my colleagues did. But, I think that the historical record shows that the decision to meet with them was correct. I might also add that everyone else had met with them routinely and not even felt it was a moral dilemma. But I thought it was.

GROSS: What clues do you have about how much they were controlled by Milosevic?

HOLBROOKE: Ah, it's a wonderful question, Terry. There is some kind of connection between Milosevic and the Bosnian Serbs. It's very difficult and elusive. Milosevic himself hates the Bosnian Serb leadership, and he's been very clear on this, as has his wife, who has written very strong critical statements about Karadzic, one of which I quote at length in the book.

And yet at the same time, he supports them. All the evidence suggests that the Yugoslav army continues to pay for the Bosnian Serb army, that that is the key connection. And there is some clear, close connections. At the time of the horrendous war crime at Srebrenica, the worst war crime since World War II, which took place just before the negotiations began, when the Moslems were slaughtered in the soccer field in the eastern enclave of Srebrenica, in June of 1995, at that time, it seemed clear to me that Yugoslav army troops were directly involved.

GROSS: Richard Holbrooke is my guest. He was the chief architect of the Dayton Peace Accords. He's written a new book about negotiating an end to the war in the Balkans and it's called To End A War.

Well, let's talk about the meetings that you had about Kosovo. First of all, you should explain to us what the problem is.

HOLBROOKE: Well, the problem in Kosovo is very different from that in Bosnia. They're related in the sense that they all stem from the collapse of Yugoslavia, but the nature of the problem is quite different. There's been very little killing so far in Kosovo, although it's escalating; several hundred killed -- maybe 1,000, which is a lot, but nothing compared to 200,000 to 300,000 dead in Bosnia.

What happened in the negotiations two weeks ago is that Secretary Albright and President Clinton asked me to go back to Belgrade and to Kosovo, along with Ambassador Robert Gelbard, the primary American implementer of the Dayton agreements, to try to jump-start a completely stalled political process.

After four or five days of shuttling back and forth between Kosovo and Belgrade, in a kind of a repetition of the pre-Dayton shuttle, we managed to get Milosevic to meet with the head of the Kosovo Albanians Dr. Ibrahim Rugova for the first time ever. They had never met because they each had conditions for a meeting which were incompatible, and we bridged that gap -- forced them to come together, under a process in which the United States has been carefully monitoring the process.

And these talks are now well underway.

GROSS: What's at stake in Kosovo? Why do you and others believe that if things blow up there, it could lead to a wider war?

HOLBROOKE: Because the Albanian population of Kosovo is closely linked to the Albanian population of both Albania itself and Macedonia. If Kosovo explodes, the chances of it dragging Albania and Macedonia into a larger war, if you will, a fourth Balkan War in the last six years, are very high.

And that war would spread immediately to the Greek border. And since about 300,000 people in Albania -- I know this is tough without a map, so please bear with me a minute -- since there are 300,000 Greeks in southern Albania, if the Albanians start to move to change their border, to incorporate Albanians who live in Kosovo into a larger Albania, the Greeks would probably move to protect the Greeks in southern Albania by saying that southern Albania should be theirs.

And the Bulgarians would get sucked into it. So, this is something devoutly to be avoided. And American leadership is essential to prevent it from happening. And you know, in the last -- in the first three wars in Yugoslavia, that started in 1991, '92 and '93, the United States stood by and did nothing as it started. And we got dragged in belatedly and reluctantly, but ultimately decisively, as described in this book.

But this time around, the United States said: "no, we're going to get in right away with active, hands-on American leadership and diplomacy." And that's basically what we're trying to do.

GROSS: Richard Holbrooke -- he was the chief architect of the Dayton Peace Accords. His new memoir is called To End A War. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Richard Holbrooke, the chief architect of the Dayton Peace Accords which ended the Balkan War. His new memoir about the talks is called To End A War.

Your books begins with the death of three of your colleagues when their vehicle, which was right in front of your vehicle, bounced off one of the most treacherous roads in the Sarajevo area -- Mount Igman. This was on the way to Sarajevo. What impact did that have on you?

HOLBROOKE: Well, it was enormous. It was our first attempt to get into Sarajevo. We couldn't fly in because the city was under attack. The airport was closed with constant mortar attacks. We were forced to take this dangerous dirt road over Mount Igman, part of which ran through Serb territory -- "Indian country" as Bob Frasier (ph) called it -- because the -- of the situation. We knew the road was dangerous.

And the night before the trip, I had argued with President Milosevic, the Yugoslav president in Belgrade, that it was an outrage for an American peace delegation to have to use such a dangerous road when we were trying to bring peace. But he was unable to guarantee our safe passage in by any other route. And so, we took off.

And -- and the accident, which I describe in detail in the opening chapter, shadowed us for the rest of the trip. The book is dedicated to Bob Frasier, Joe Cruzel (ph) and Nelson Drew -- my three colleagues who died. And we dedicated the rest of the peace mission to them.

I think in Washington, it had the effect of bringing the war home to people for whom the war was an abstraction. No senior government officials had visited Bosnia during the whole administration, rather amazingly. And -- but suddenly, three people that were very well known -- one working at the White House, one my deputy at the State Department, and the other the senior deputy assistant secretary of state in the Pentagon -- were gone.

And really focused the administration -- and after the memorial services at Arlington Cemetery, President Clinton got our team together and really pulled them back together in a scene I describe in some detail, and then we re-launched.

GROSS: Now, let's get back to Dayton. What strikes you as the most surreal moment of the talks there?


HOLBROOKE: The most surreal moment -- oh, God, there are so many.

GROSS: Sounds like you've got a lot to choose from.


HOLBROOKE: Well, I think the most surreal moment was probably this dinner that we gave on the fourth night, in an attempt to break the ice, which we staged in the huge hangar at the Air War Museum at Wright Patterson Airbase, which was filled with war planes and Tomahawk missiles -- the same missile with which NATO had decimated the Bosnian Serbs only a few weeks earlier.

And there under the wing of a Stealth bomber sat Izetbegovic and Milosevic and other luminaries of the Balkans, having dinner and listening to the music of a Glenn Miller-style Air Force band playing "Boogie Woogie Blues" and "Company C" and other favorites from the Glenn Miller/World War II era, and Milosevic kind of singing along and Izetbegovic looking morose -- and all this under the wing of this war plane.

And my wife turned to the two men and said: "how did you first get to know each other? How did this war start?" And they kind of started reminiscing in a rather friendly way at first. And they both sort of said, in effect: "I don't really know how this war started. It wasn't our plan. It kind of took off on its own."

And we were sitting there listening to this, and thinking: "God damn it. These people almost wrecked Europe. They've sucked the rest of the world in -- billions of dollars have been wasted trying to deal with the consequences of their actions. And they seem absolutely oblivious to their own responsibilities."

I'm not saying that Izetbegovic and Milosevic are equally responsible, because one was in the position of victim and the other was in the position of perpetrator, but Izetbegovic could have done things differently and come out with a better outcome at less cost, and Milosevic did not need to do what he did.

And the rest of the world has paid in lives, in treasure, in diversion from urgent international tasks of the 21st century. It was -- it really was surreal, listening to this Andrews Sister trio, this Glenn Miller band, this extraordinary setting. And it just -- it really was a moment. You looked around and said: "this isn't real" -- but it was.

GROSS: What message were you trying to communicate by putting them in this war museum with all the missiles?

HOLBROOKE: Well, we chose the War Museum because the Air Force had offered it as an interesting venue. As it turned out, it had just the right symbolism because it projected American power at its most dramatic. It had very powerful symbolism. It was much better than a restaurant. It had just the implied combination of menace.

I remember leading some of the Bosnian Serbs over to a -- the Tomahawk missile, which they looked at with great fascination, because this missile had destroyed their command and control structure in western Bosnia only a few weeks earlier. And they looked up at it and said: "so much damage from such a little thing."

So, they got the message. I remember the -- my Swedish co-negotiator Carl Bildt objecting to the militaristic atmosphere of the negotiations at an airbase with all this weaponry rattling around, but in fact, the weaponry played exactly the right symbolic purpose.

I don't want to suggest that the outcome was determined by the venue, but the location in the airbase, and the use of things like the museum helped send a subliminal message. One other point, Terry: the other important point about Dayton is that Ohio is the ultimate location of multi-ethnic cooperation in the United States from that area.

We were surrounded by Croats, Serbs, Albanians, and all the other southeastern European nations -- the Hungarians, the Czechs, the Slovaks -- who all live peacefully and restrict their rivalries to Sunday church soccer games and softball games now.

And this was a point that President Clinton and I and others emphasized repeatedly, that coming to Ohio, these people worked together, lived together, intermarried, and they could do the same; if they could do it in Cleveland and Cincinnati and Dayton, they could do it in Zagreb and Sarajevo and Belgrade.

GROSS: Is it productive to get warring parties to sit around a dinner table together? Does that aspect of breaking bread together mean anything?

HOLBROOKE: Well, I think this dinner was -- in and of itself, the dinner didn't change anything. It was an experiment. We were improvising based on a fundamental theme. The theme was: get an agreement. The improvisation was: let's try different ways. What we learned during that dinner and elsewhere, Terry, was that face to face talks between these people didn't work. And it was better to leave them in their rooms, 50 yards apart, and shuttle back and forth.

So the dinner, while it was a memorable event, was not a key to the negotiations. And if you take that dinner off the table, I think the outcome would have been the same. But we had to try it, if you see what I mean.

GROSS: Richard Holbrooke, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

HOLBROOKE: Well it was my pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: Richard Holbrooke's new memoir is called To End A War.

Coming up, our film critic John Powers tells us about the films he just watched at the Cannes Film Festival.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Richard Holbrooke
High: U.S. Peace negotiator Richard Holbrooke. He was the chief architect of the Dayton Peace Accord that ended the war in the former Yugoslavia. He has just returned from the region. His new book will be published in June "To End A War."
Spec: Europe; Eastern Europe; Serbia; Kosovo; Violence; Military; Massacres; Human Rights; To End a War; Albania; Croatia; Slovenia; Bosnia
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: To End a War
Date: MAY 27, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 052702np.217
Head: At Cannes
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:45

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Our film critic John Powers is back from France where he was checking out new films from around the world at the Cannes Film Festival. Many of the movies he saw will be making their way to American theaters.

We asked him to tell us about the festival, beginning with this year's winners, which were announced Saturday night.

JOHN POWERS, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: There were two big winners at Cannes this year. The winner of the Palm d'Or, which is the top prize, is the -- was the Greek director Theo Engelopoulos (ph), who I've always described as the "Bob Dole" of international filmmaking.


Because he's always running for awards. And this was -- this year was no exception. He made a very pretentious film that I didn't like at all called "Eternity and a Day," which many people claimed is the running time rather than the actual title. And it was about a Greek poet who -- basically, who's going to die, but before he dies, wanders the streets in very long shots and dreams about his past -- memories of his ex-wife.

And then to show kind of patina of social concern, meets a small Albanian refugee boy and they hang out for a while. Not much happens in this story, which ends over and over and over again. The thing just keep going on and on and on, in incredibly long shots. But Engelopoulos, who I can't stand, has a huge reputation in Europe. And for years, people have been saying it's a tragedy that he'd never won a huge international award.

I mean, no one felt this tragedy more acutely than Engelopoulos himself, who -- the last time he had a film at Cannes called "Ulysses' Gaze" (ph) with Harvey Keitel, won second prize, and was booed because when he accepted the prize, he said he expected to win the first prize.

This year, he did win the first prize, but keeping -- in keeping with his tradition of being a sorehead, managed to claim, when he won the prize this year, he said: "well, it's about time I won." So that he actually not only was a bad loser last time, but a bad winner this time.

GROSS: So, what was the other big prize?

POWERS: Well, the other big prize went to a Roberto Benini film called "Life is Beautiful." And in a way, it was the real winner of the festival because even though it finished second, it was easily the most popular film at the festival. Once again, I didn't like it much and I think if I just describe it to you, maybe you'll understand why.

It's sort of a Chaplinesque story about a father played by Benini himself, the Italian comedian. And essentially the first half of the movie is him meeting his wife and sort of wooing her, and then they're having a child.

The second half is when they're taken because he's a Jew. He and his son and his wife are taken to a concentration camp. And the theme of the second half is the way that Benini tries to convince his son that they're not actually in a death camp, but are actually playing a game.

And so in scene after scene, as for example all the other kids are carted off, Benini will explain to his son: "well, we get 50 points if we hide and we don't get caught." And so, an hour of the film is essentially him trying to convince his son that the son will win a full-sized tank if he gets enough points, by surviving what's going on in the camp.

And the camp looks kind of like the -- it's like the death camp version of the prisoner of war camp in "Hogan's Heroes," where Benini, although he's actually being forced to work all the time, is still able to sneak away at certain moments and broadcast messages to his wife over the loudspeaker of the camp.

And all of this is done in a kind of whimsical, Chaplinesque way. And the audience ate it up. It got a 10-minute standing ovation. Miramax has bought it. They're gonna win at least one Oscar with it. They're gonna make a zillion dollars, because it's a real kind of crowd-pleasing film. And, I just didn't like it at all.

GROSS: The whimsy and concentration camp weren't a perfect match for you?

POWERS: Well, I thought that was a miscalculation, but in a -- in a second way, I just didn't think it was funny.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

POWERS: There's a -- the peculiar thing that -- you know, it's -- like those old jokes about the food being bad and the portions not being big enough...


... here, I think it -- this is a bad idea for a film. If you're actually trying to make a film about protecting your child from the evil in the world, I'm not sure the Holocaust is the way I would do it. But in addition to that, then a lot of the jokes are very, very badly timed. The second half, where he's playing the game with his son, it just goes on and on and on. And I find it -- watching it -- positively excruciating.

And you know, Miramax wrote to sort of explain what was going on -- perhaps the most refined, articulate, and complicated press kit in the history of cinema; just sort of going through all the issues raised by this particular film. And there's going to be a huge PR push.

I think the Mayor of Jerusalem has already given Roberto Benini an award. And I keep expecting that somehow they will discover some letter from Primo Levy (ph) saying that he would happy to be alive, if he'd only seen a Chaplinesque comedy about the concentration camps.

GROSS: Well, what were the most interesting American films at Cannes?

POWERS: Well, there were basically two really interesting American films at Cannes. One of the things that happened was that the official competition missed a lot of the most interesting American films that are coming out or have come out. So, they didn't choose "Bulworth." They didn't -- they somehow muffed getting "The Truman Show." They didn't get the Spike Lee film.

The two big films were American independents. They weren't big studio films. The more successful of the two was a film called "Happiness," by Todd Salans (ph) who people will remember from "Welcome to the Doll House," which was a film that came out a couple of years ago and that a lot of people, including me, over-praised, because it actually had some nice stuff in it, but it wasn't fully achieved.

And Happiness played very early in the festival and to everyone's amazement is really, really, really good. It's a sharp, very bleak, very funny comedy about people being humiliated in New Jersey. It's sort of an Altamanesque sort of -- where you interweave several stories. And it's basically about how people's lives in this suburban world have sort of small moments of fleeting happiness surrounded by all sorts of horror, loneliness and isolation.

It's the kind of leap that he made in this one -- it was the kind of leap that Quentin Tarantino made, say, between "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction," which was that with -- when you say Welcome to the Doll House, you thought it was possible this might be the only film this guy could ever make, because it seemed so personal in its geekiness that you thought maybe he was working out some sort of problem of his own from high school.

Whereas this film was much more expansive. It's really hilarious. And it sort of took the festival by storm. I mean, once again the festival organizers of the official competition made this huge blunder and didn't include it in the official competition. So Happiness, which I think everyone would think was the best American film there -- it won the International Critics Prize unanimously -- was actually in the third-rank category, because the official Cannes people turned it down.

The other film was by another Todd -- and actually had the same producer, Christine Beauchamp (ph). And it's called "Velvet Goldmine." It was the film I was looking forward to most of the time. And it's basically a riff in a very complicated way on the glam-rock period of the '70s.

And it's made by Todd Haines (ph), who's made a series of very interesting and complicated movies. His last one was called "Safe." Before that, he made a gay film called "Poison;" and before that, a kind of legendary, hard to see film called "Superstar," which was about Karen Carpenter and used Barbie dolls to enact the life of Karen Carpenter.

This is a film about glam-rock that basically tries to position the history of glam-rock as part of a movement that was created by Oscar Wilde, and actually Oscar Wilde as a child appears in the film. And more or less showing how it was a kind of area of freedom that was created in the '70s, that was actually far more radical than the hippie period on the one hand; and then far -- and then was kind of swallowed up by the Reagan '80s.

GROSS: You really wanted to see it. It's the film you were most looking forward to. Did you like it?

POWERS: I was disappointed by it, and yet I think it's good. I think the problem with a film being the film you most want to see is that then you are expecting greatness. And the film wants to be great and I think it isn't great. It has really wonderful, smart things all the way through. I enjoyed watching every minute of it. But somehow, the narrative doesn't quite work. You're never quite fully engaged in the story.

And it doesn't quite do the thing that I think that it has to do, which is to make you feel the incredible magical quality of the glam-rock era. The film tells you over and over again, this was a magical time, but you never quite feel it. And I think there's not much you can do about that.

Having said that, the film was one of the three or four smartest films in the festival. It's extremely well-shot. It's very well-acted. It has more ideas -- in fact, it has too many ideas -- than probably any other film in the competition. So this was actually a very strong film, but when you compared it to something like Happiness, which was simpler, but worked through far more perfectly, you know, it's not as good a film.

GROSS: We're talking with FRESH AIR film critic John Powers. More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

We're talking about the Cannes Film Festival with our film critic John Powers.

How much does success at Cannes mean for the future of a film in America? Is there a correlation between success at Cannes and success at the box office in the states?

POWERS: There's no strong correlation. If you have a film that was likely to be popular, like Pulp Fiction, I think Cannes gives it a good send-off. If it's a film like "Secrets and Lies" -- like Mike Leigh's (ph) Secrets and Lies, it also will get a bit of send-off. But if it's a foreign film, it makes almost no difference.

I mean, in fact, one of the interesting things is that if you look at the last few winners, this year's winners might -- this year's winner Engelopoulos will have a very difficult time just getting a movie deal by even a small distributor to have this film shown in the United States.

Last year's two winners -- it was a tie -- one was a film by Shohi Imamura (ph) called "The Eel." It's about to be released, but no one's going to go. And the other was Abas Kuristami's (ph) "The Taste of Cherry," which once again got a very small release from a very small company and didn't make much money.

So, I think the curious thing is that in the United States terms, you know, to win Cannes means very, very little. I think Cannes is much more a celebrity media event in the United States, and then somehow, if a Hollywood picture, or at least some sort of American film wins, it becomes a big deal. But if it's a foreign film, it actually makes almost no difference to how much it will be seen in the United States.

GROSS: Do you get any sense at Cannes about any directions that filmmakers seem to be heading in? Any themes emerging or patterns emerging? Or any films of the recent past that seem to be having a big impact on the films that are coming out now? -- in the way that, say, Pulp Fiction had an impact on so many films.

POWERS: Yes, well, I think we've actually, you know, mercifully, finally entered the post-Tarantino period. But we may have actually entered something that's kind of even slightly more disturbing. You know, the great theme of this year's festival was to make extremely funny, very, very bleak, black comedies about things that don't seem very funny.

I mean, even if you take the -- the Benini film about the Holocaust camp, although it wasn't a black comedy -- I mean, it was a comedy about the Holocaust; the film Happiness by Todd Salans, which was one of the best films there, which is a film about New Jersey, has as one of its major characters a child molester.

There's a film from Denmark, which was a black comedy, about a family coming to terms with the fact that the father of the family had molested two of the children. There was a French film called "Sitcom" which ends up with the mother having sex with the son.

So that on the one hand, there was -- there seemed to be this kind of desire to sort of push the envelope of taste and acceptability, which I think is sort of a classic, I guess, avant garde strategies; you're trying to sort of break through.

On the other hand, and perhaps -- was that dialectically linked to that kind of pushiness, there's a new strand of sentimentality in international film. It's like -- that a lot of the great films that people love the most are about children. So, there was a film about waifs from Colombia. There was a film about waifs from Indonesia. One of -- there -- the Benini film all turns on a child. The Engelopoulos film has -- the Engelopoulos film that won has a child being spotted by the aging guy who's at the heart of it.

So there's this weird sort of oppositional trend in these movies. On the one hand, the films are really bleak and nasty and dark. And on the other hand, they're very sentimental stories about children.

GROSS: Any other films you want to mention that you want us to look out for when they do open theatrically -- if they do open theatrically?

POWERS: Well, there were two English-language films that won prizes, you know, that, I think are definitely worth mentioning. The best screenplay went to Hal Hartley (ph), who had written a film called "Henry Fool" (ph), which is I think a not completely successful film about a pretentious writer who sort of more or less helps this guy -- this inarticulate guy to start writing, and then it turns out that the inarticulate guy's actually a genius, whereas the kind of Henry Milleresque grungy Bukowskiesque guy who thinks he's a genius, actually isn't very talented.

What's interesting about the film is that it has played in lots of festivals before now. It's actually opening in the states on June 19. But I think the French particularly embraced it, because they love the image of the kind of filthy, dirty, down and out American. You know, the French -- you know, they always loved Henry Miller. They always loved Mickey Rourke. They love Charles Bukowski. And the writer figure in this is sort of like right up the alley for the French audience. This was, you know, a great success among the French people.

And it was probably in lots of ways the most written film in the festival, which is I think one reason why it won the screenplay prize. The best director prize when to John Boreman (ph) for the best film he's made in years and years and years and years.

It's called "The General" and it's about a famous Irish thief named Martin Cahill who was -- who's basically -- who was born in one of the poorest slums of Dublin and then gradually wound up being murdered by the IRA because he -- he somehow was so busy being a crook, he didn't care who he offended along the way.

And in lots of ways, it was the most sumptuous movie of the festival. I mean, Boreman is one of the world's great visual stylists, and he uses a wide-screen here and black and white photography. It's absolutely ravishing. And I think it's one sign of, you know, how beautifully directed this film is is that it would win when in lots of ways, you might not think it would win. But Scorsese was the head of the jury and I think he can tell a well-directed film.

And when you were watching the Boreman film, a lot of the other films you saw before and after looked a bit like television. Whereas this actually had that full, wide-screen rich black and white look, and you thought: "wow, you know, I'm really seeing a movie now. I'm not just seeing a, you know, a well-made TV show. I'm not just seeing a video. I'm actually seeing something that needs a big screen" -- and will bowl you over with that.

GROSS: Well John, listen, thanks for the review of what happened at Cannes. I know you're probably feeling very sorry that you had to miss the theatrical opening in the United States of "Godzilla" when you were gone, but...

POWERS: Oh, that and the ending of "Seinfeld," which...

GROSS: Oh, you were gone for that, too?

POWERS: Yes. Well, actually one of the funny things that happened at Cannes was that at the -- there's an American pavilion which is sort of a tented area set up at the beach, or by the beach, where Americans go to do business and to eat sandwiches and hang out with other Americans.

And on the night of the Seinfeld thing, many people showed up at 2:30 in the morning because they were going to somehow get a special satellite feed of the Seinfeld finale, live -- or not live, but at Cannes, because they desperate -- people desperately wanted to know it.

And somehow, especially early in this particular festival, so little seemed to be going on that the ending of Seinfeld seemed far more important than any film that was going to be shown.


GROSS: Well John, welcome back to the states and thanks very much for telling us about the Cannes Film Festival.

POWERS: Sure thing.

GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIR's film critic and film critic for Vogue.

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: John Powers; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Film Critic John Powers talks about the new movies being shown at the Cannes Film Festival in France.
Spec: Movie Industry; Europe; France; Cannes
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: At Cannes
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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