There are lots of good reasons to see German director Percy Adlon’s Bagdad Café (1987), but right now two of these reasons seem especially pertinent. First, it stars Marianne Sägebrecht at the start of what briefly looked like a promising U.S. career that never quite happened, and not only is she a delight, but it’s a decided pleasure to see a heavy woman who isn’t played by someone in a fat suit and who isn’t played for cheap fat jokes. (Indeed, I don’t think there’s a single fat joke in the movie, nor is her size ever made into an issue.) But just as significant is the fact that this 20-year-old film reminds us of a time before independent movies became the formulaic fare they often are these days—when they were fresh and vital, as opposed to calculated exercises in prefab quirkiness that wears its indie-ness on its sleeve. Bagdad Café is certainly quirky, but its quirkiness is simply inherent. It arises from the story and the characters, and doesn’t feel grafted onto the film for its own sake.
The film is a lovingly lopsided look at an aspect of American life, as imagined—after a trip to the U.S.—by Adlon and his cowriter, coproducer wife, Eleonore. The near brilliance of their concept lies in the fact that while their German heroine, Jasmin (Sägebrecht), is a magical character (who actually turns magician in the course of the film), she’s just as strange to the peculiar assemblage of Americans who make up the residents of the Bagdad Café and Motel as they are to her. Plus, ultimately, they are all as magical as she is. You get no sense of the German woman setting these silly Americans right. Instead, you get the sense of the two cultures benefiting from each other’s strengths. It’s a witty, wise, playful film with three outstanding performances—Sägebrecht, the under-appreciated CCH Pounder and Jack Palance—a particularly evocative musical score and a heart bigger than its plus-size heroine. More, it’s not so worried about being hip that it’s afraid to be a little corny, something very rare in indie film.