Dir. Wilfried Huismann. Germany. 2000. 92mins.

The story that unfolds in Wilfried Huismann's documentary Dear Fidel is so unexpected and off-kilter that it can be watched in the same fashion as a car crash: with a mute, horrified slow-motion fascination. About a woman who claims to be the lover of Cuban leader Fidel Castro returning to the island, the film displays little commercial promise; but due to its very strangeness, it may find a niche with specialised arthouse and festival audiences. It has already had limited one-off screenings in France and Germany, and is due to play both the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema and the Chicago Latino Film Festival next April.

The documentary centres on Marita Lorenz, a woman perhaps 10 years younger than Fidel Castro, whose father was the captain of a German cruise ship. As chance would have it, Lorenz sailed with her father when he took his vessel to Cuba shortly after Castro came to power. Lorenz met Castro, apparently fell in love with him and became pregnant. Even before these events, Lorenz' life was tumultuous: in 1944, the Nazis sent her and her mother to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, where she says she was raped at the age of seven.

The film substantiates this much of Lorenz' story: her involvement with Castro and his inner circle is confirmed by photographs from the time as well as recent footage of Lorenz with former Castro associates. But beyond the basics of the story, the complications Lorenz recounts become so fantastic that the audience wants to reject them as pure fantasy - although the film's witnesses seem legitimate, and it may be harder to disprove the tale than to prove it.

Lorenz describes a forced abortion and then a continuing and ever more tangled story of working for both the CIA and the FBI. Connections to the Kennedy assassination come up with stories about alleged mafioso Sam Giancana, paramour of JFK lover Judith Exner - and so on. Witnesses in the film, former agents of the FBI and CIA, talk about surreptitious meetings at the Brown Derby in Los Angeles and poison pills. Lorenz says that the CIA worked on her to help in its anti-Castro plots - "but love is stronger'.

But Dear Fidel's power to astonish comes mostly through Lorenz' own testimony. Of her first meeting with Castro aboard her father's ship, Lorenz describes how the great revolutionary put aside his weapons and stayed for dinner. "He held my hand under the table," she says.

Eventually, the film follows her back to Cuba where she hopes to speak with her old lover. She visits an old friend who has fallen from Castro's favour, and finally goes to Castro's office to see him. The very idea that one can drop in at Castro's office boggles the mind, but when she finally leaves Cuba with only a note from Castro's secretary expressing his regards, the dejected Lorenz stuns viewers with her belief that Castro still loves her.

The film leaves the audience wondering: is Lorenz demented' Is she a tragic victim of self-deception' How much of this fantastic story is true' Is Lorenz' story one of grand, spurned love' Perhaps the mere fact that the story has been told in the first place is enough.

Prod cos: SUR Films, WDR, SWR, Canal Plus
Int'l sales:
Colifilms Distribution
Wilfried Huismann
Reinhard Gossmann
Margot Lohein, Kirsten Becker
Music: Klaus Doldinger