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BERLINALE 2024 Forum

Review: Henry Fonda for President

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- BERLINALE 2024: With the eye and the vast knowledge of a true cinephile, and his finger on the pulse of US society, Alexander Horwath creates a fascinating homage to his idol

Review: Henry Fonda for President

Just as young cinema lover Alexander Horwath was discovering his love for Henry Fonda, with a Parisian cinema serving as a proxy to a meeting that would never be, Fonda himself was one year away from giving his last big interview. Another year later, in 1982, he died from heart disease. Fonda might be long gone, but his legacy, and Howarth’s fascination with him, have never waned.

The film essay Henry Fonda for President [+see also:
interview: Alexander Horwath
film profile
]
, with which Horwath has progressed from journalist and curator to active filmmaker, had its world premiere at the 74th Berlinale, in the Forum section. It is an exploration of the man, the myth, his impact on film history and the parallels which can be drawn with the equally nebulous myths of America. Yes, Fonda might have been dead for over 40 years, and Horwath does not suggest for one minute that the viewer of today should see a persistent relevance in a long-gone actor, but by diving into Fonda’s biography, the roles he embodied and the societal upheavals that the USA underwent, he creates a fascinating cycle. A recurrence of political ideas, counter-culture and pop-culture trends.

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Fonda encapsulated them all: the myth of the pilgrims, the migrant on the Oregon Trail, the disillusioned anti-hero, the badass criminal. Horwath skilfully stitches together snippets of films, pictures and interviews, and analyses Fonda’s hands over his eyes (since a man was not allowed to be seen crying) or his legs, which he pointedly stuck up on a chair, on a fence or against the wall – a physicality, a pattern that extended throughout his work. But there is also the Fonda family itself, Dutch immigrants in the 17th century, after whom a small town in New York is still named, and whose descendants have become the classic American Midwestern residents.

Horwath does not simply stick to a collage of archive material, though he is there, in New York, Nebraska, New Salem, Tombstone, the vast underbelly of America. He follows Fonda’s footsteps, all the while taking the occasional detour – to Robert De Niro and his mohawk, to Jodie Foster and her stalker, and to Ronald Reagan, a lesser actor, but one who would dominate the coming decade politically. His conservative, almost jingoistic worldview on the superiority of America shaped an era that Fonda did not get to experience. But here, again, while his death might be absolute, his characters and sensibilities live on.

Speaking as an outsider to the American Dream, the illusion of a “shining city upon a hill”, as Reagan called the country, is a position that puts Horwath in the best company. His hero Fonda may have been the all-American actor, but the roles he played fitted into a gaze that is usually reserved for the outsider. No matter if it was Fred Zinnemann or Alfred Hitchcock, they all came from abroad and thus perceived the American Dream through their own, alien lens. Horwath connects his tale of Fonda to the displacement of the Native Americans, the new formation of a societal elite, and the false promise of equality.

Fonda may have been a Democrat, a strong supporter of Franklin D Roosevelt and John F Kennedy, but the film also doesn’t shy away from his complicated relationship with his children, Jane and Peter, who represent a more critical, more proactive America plunging into an ideological class and civil-rights war. What remains of Fonda is his oeuvre. His fascinating biography encapsulates the myth of the American Dream, from dishwasher to millionaire. He may not have been president, but he still rules over a part of film history.

Henry Fonda for President was produced by Austria’s Mischief Films and Germany’s Medea Film Factory.

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