Al Milgrom with the neck brace he'll need to wear for at least a couple more months as he recovers from an accident in Berlin.

"Where’s Al?”

That was the question on the minds of many Twin Cities cinephiles when the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival launched two weeks ago without its founding father, Al Milgrom, banging the gong that echoed through so many opening nights over the decades.

And that was our question this week as we wandered the labyrinth of a St. Paul care center. A nurse smiled when we told her we were looking for Al. (No last name needed). “He’s great!” she said brightly, and directed us to a room where Milgrom, 90, looked leonine even in a flesh-colored neck brace.

You could tell he hadn’t been there long. The stack of papers beside the bed of this notorious packrat was only a couple inches high.

“Kafkaesque” is how he described his experience during the past two months, which found him marooned in Berlin. In short, this is his tale:

In early February Milgrom flew to Germany for his annual scouting trip at the Berlin Film Festival. Jet-lagged, he checked into his hotel but had trouble sleeping. He took an Ambien, then stumbled in the dark and fell against the wall, fracturing his neck.

In the morning, with Al literally holding his head in his hands, a correspondent helped get him to a hospital. Doctors fused his first and second vertebrae and braced them with a titanium plate. While the operation went well, he soon developed pneumonia.

Things were a bit touch and go for a time. Milgrom’s lung capacity has been impaired since his first stay in Germany as a soldier 63 years ago, when he contracted tuberculosis, and part of one lung was removed. Antibiotics were not available to him then, but this time of course they were. He responded to treatment and was eventually transferred to a convalescent home.

Weeks passed, bills mounted and Milgrom itched to return home. Because of his condition, it took him considerable time to gather the necessary permissions (this is where Kafka comes in, but even he would have had trouble making narrative sense of it all). Ultimately, though, a shuttle jet carried him (and an oxygen kit) to Amsterdam, where he boarded a KLM flight to Chicago. His son Benjamin met him at the gate and drove him to the Twin Cities.

At this point, Milgrom appears frail but physically vital and mentally vibrant. Though he hopes to return home soon, his family worries about his ability to negotiate a house that is piled with books and papers, and has no first-floor bathroom.

Reached by phone late Wednesday afternoon, he was preparing to move in with his daughter, Marsha, who has a basement apartment. He also hopes to make it to the festival before it closes Sunday. (Al being Al, he had a highlighted tipsheet at hand, and recommends “The Virgin, the Copts and Me,” a film by Egyptian-born director Namir Abdel Messeeh that is being shown at 4 p.m. Thursday.)

While he has health insurance, he incurred tens of thousands of dollars in medical costs, which he covered by maxing out his credit cards and taking out loans against his home. So friends are working on various fundraising ideas. We’ll keep you updated as those plans develop.


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