There are those films that mesmerize us as we watch them, then attach themselves to our hearts for eternity. They may not be the best film ever made, but they touch our soul in a special way, and we can never let them go. I never expected a story about a remote truck stop to have such an effect on me…but Bagdad Café did. There is magic in the desert and it wears a corset.
Bagdad Café is a English speaking, 1987 West German firm directed by Percy Adlon and starring CCH Pounder, Marianne Sagebrecht, and Jack Palance. Brenda (CCH Pounder), who owns the Bagdad motel/ café and run-down gas station, has just broken up with her husband. She literally kicks him out to fend for himself. The motel, located in the Mojave Desert, services long haul truck drivers who stop in to refuel, eat, sleep, or get a little bit of action from hookers staying at the motel, before hitting the road.
Like any desert, the Mojave has hidden beauty, but when we step up to the café, we find a surly Brenda, who is way too busy trying to make ends meet as she handles her two teenage children and a baby. She has no strength to show any niceties to her quests. Enter Jasmin (Marianne Sagebrecht) a German tourist who has had enough of touring and husbands.
After storming out of her hubby’s Mercedes, Jasmin, suitcase in hand, heads towards the isolated truck stop. Jasmin is tightly wrapped: hair in bun, corset strapped on as if welded to her body, and her clothing screams “German disciplined” which is the complete opposite of the shambles of a room that Brenda assigns to Jasmin.
The rotund Jasmin immediately grabs a mop, broom and a pail and scrubs her room spotless. While Brenda’s children and the motel regulars are impressed with the new tenant, Brenda views her as a threat. Jasmin’s strict and regimented demeaner eventually morphs into her wearing soft, lacy blouses sans the corset, and letting her hair loose. One of the guests, a former Hollywood set painter (Jack Palance) notices the change and asks Jasmin to pose for him.
You could not pick two perfect female actresses to play against each other as Pounder and Sagebrecht do with finesse and cutting-edge style. Pounder’s Brenda is a strong woman surrounded by clueless people. She is tired. The desert has lost its magic for her. She worries about her free-spirited daughter, and her musically talented son, Salomo (Darron Flagg). I wasn’t sure who the baby belonged to, but Salomo is usually the one caring for the infant. The bills are piling up, and the café with its coffee challenged chef, is not pulling in enough business to keep the establishment open. It will take a magic trick to save the café and Brenda.
Conclusion and Spoilers
When Jasmin poses for Rudi Cox (Jack Palance) it is not the subtle nudity that we notice, but the beauty of the human form, be it thin or plump, to the eyes of an admirer. Thanks to Jasmin, the café and motel are now sparkling clean and flourishing. Jasmin, using her magic tricks, is finally able to win the trust and friendship of Brenda. That desert doesn’t seem so isolated and lonely anymore.
The soundtrack for the film, which featured the song ‘Calling You’ by Jevetta Steele, is just as haunting as the film itself. Guess what! There was a real Bagdad California on Route 66, but an interstate put an end to the town.
I may have stayed at a place just like Bagdad Café, many years ago when my first husband, me, and my one-year-old little girl drove cross country to live with my mother and her boyfriend in Napa California. It was the early 70’s.
The car we had was a piece of junk with four wheels. It was leaking carbon monoxide from its faulty exhaust system, which forced us to drive with the windows opened in cold weather. We only had a few bucks on us; it was enough for food and gas. We drove non-stop across the southern route. When we were traveling through the Arizona desert, our car broke down. We were stranded. A good Samaritan wearing a cowboy hat and driving a rusty old pick-up truck, picked us up and dropped us off at truck stop/motel/café that was eerily similar to the Bagdad Café in this film.
The good Samaritan not only paid for our room and food, but he also paid for the car to be repaired. No one knew who he was. They had never seen him before. I do believe that there are angels who walk among us and save us just when everything seems hopeless.
The owner of the truck stop/motel/cafe was a gruff old man with a big heart. He felt sorry for us clueless city slickers from Philadelphia, and he made sure that we had plenty of food to take with us on the road.
I always think about that trip to California and that truck stop. It was rundown, dusty and in the middle of the desert…but like Bagdad Café…it was unforgettable.