Oscar Berliner is a sour, curmudgeonly senior, and unable to understand why his son would want to make a film about him. This is the joy of documentarist Alan Berliner’s Nobody’s Business. It could be that Berliner’s interest in geneology and his family’s Central European past is a reflection of some insecurity, which is how it seems at first, but the film reveals far too much, and is wrought with too much craft to be nothing more than a lifeless portrait.
Berliner’s interest in his family’s past is genuine, and it forces him to turn the camera on his oldest living relative, and probably the member of his family least suited for an interview-his father. Alan thinks everyone has a documentary-worthy story, but Oscar remains convinced, despite the successive bits of information Alan excavates, that the endeavor is fruitless. And you can’t help but see his point when he shouts at his son that his story is “no different than who knows how many millions of people.”
The question whether this subject is worth a film isn’t helped by the fact that the Berliner’s compilation of old photographs, letters, maps and interviews with relatives form the biography of a truly ordinary man: a former salesman who married a young blonde, had a bitter divorce and retired lonely and reclusive. The film gets mired at times in the details of Oscar’s life; it’s easy to bat an eye as Alan goes searching for lost Berliners in the vast paper catacombs of the Salt Lake City Geneological Center
But during the series of conflicts with his extremely uncooperative father, elements of drama emerge. “I’ve been trying to make sense of the divorce all my life,” Alan says, “This is my chance.” With Berliner’s ability to universalize the relative, it is these underlying agendas that are the film’s support.
Nobody’s Business is best read as a study of familial bonds and generation gaps; Oscar is stoic, traditional and of an era when an ethnic background was a disadvantage; his identity-seeking son lives in a land where mainstream culture has never been blander. Histories and emotional ties can be all important, but, as Oscar whines, “Everyone has their own set of values.” Even if you’ve only wondered about your heritage, if anyone is worth a film, it’s surly, cantankerous, wonderful Oscar Berliner.
Nobody’s Business will show tonight at the Walker Art Center at 8 p.m. with Alan Berliner’s Intimate Stranger.