Thursday, September 10, 2015

2015 Top Ten List # 3 Phoenix

PHOENIX                  A                    
Germany  Poland  (98 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Christian Petzold         Official site

Speak low when you speak, love,
Our summer day withers away
Too soon, too soon.

Speak low when you speak, love,
Our moment is swift, like ships adrift,
We’re swept apart too soon.

Speak low, darling speak low,
Love is a spark lost in the dark,
Too soon, too soon,
I feel wherever I go
That tomorrow is near, tomorrow is here
And always too soon.

Time is so old and love so brief,
Love is pure gold and time a thief.

We’re late darling, we’re late,
The curtain descends, ev’rything ends
Too soon, too soon,
I wait darling, I wait

Will you speak low to me,
Speak love to me and soon.

—“Speak Low,” by Kurt Weill (written while in exile in America) and Ogden Nash, 1943, Billie Holiday Speak Low YouTube (4:26)              

Like the surprise hit of last year, 2014 Top Ten List #2 Ida, Christian Petzold returns to form with this tense, brutally moving Holocaust drama that was inexplicably rejected by both Cannes and Venice, displaying another level of newfound maturity in his still evolving career with what is arguably his best film yet.  Like his others, it’s meticulously directed, but contains the most complexly intriguing story he’s ever worked with, another showcase for actress Nina Hoss, who is onscreen in nearly every shot in what is essentially an intensely personal search for a newly constructed post-war German identity, adapted by Petzold and the late Harun Farocki in his last screenplay, who worked with Petzold on and off since his very first feature THE STATE I AM IN (2000).  Loosely based on Hubert Monteilhet’s 1961 detective novel Le Retour des Vendres (The Return of the Ashes), the film is accentuated by a beautifully understated and low key jazz score that both begins and ends the film, enticing the audience from the opening frame while also creating what is the most haunting ending of any film seen this year.  For a story that explores human identity, you won’t find a more symmetrically perfect screenplay from start to finish, where the formalism of its construction is marked by an economy of intricate precision, but this is a throwback to a Fassbinder style story where Germany is trying to come to terms with the evils of its own troubled past, with shades of THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN (1979) and LILI MARLENE (1981), or an improvement on DESPAIR (1978), once more embellishing upon a film noir theme, the third time Petzold has used this device, where Yella (2007) and Jerichow (2008) were impressionistic reconstructions of earlier films CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946), where this one utilizes Georges Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960), as both use surgical reconstruction to evoke the medical atrocities of Nazi SS officer Josef Mengele’s fanatical quest for Aryan purity by performing deadly genetic experiments on Auschwitz concentration camp victims.  Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, a survivor of Auschwitz who is shot in the face in the waning days of the war, having to undergo painful facial reconstruction, introduced to the audience with her entire head covered with protective bandages, where her surgeon suggests after the war “a new face is an advantage,” as it allows one a fresh start in life.  Nelly, however, continues to dwell on her former life, which is unknown to the viewer and only comes together in bits and pieces, where her intentions remain shrouded in mystery for a good deal of the film, only really revealing herself in the magnificence of the final shot.      

Described as a Trümmerfilm (literally “rubble film”), narratively, the film has an interesting structure to it, continually shifting the perspective through the eyes of various characters while Nelly is forced to retreat into the background, lost inside her head, unable to recognize herself or even speak after the operation, where she’s painfully forced to admit that for all practical purposes, she no longer exists, Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2014 YouTube (4:47).  Not only a war casualty, rescued after spending two years in Auschwitz, her essential humanity has been stripped from her as well, seen early on wandering through the bombed out ruins of postwar Berlin searching for any semblance of her former life.  With the help of a loyal friend Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf), a clerk in the Hall of Jewish Records who painstakingly goes through the files attempting to identify Nazi’s and reconstruct the lives of the missing, Nelly returns to Berlin for plastic surgery and a chance for rest and recovery, and while she’s not at all pleased with the results, finding it difficult to live with herself, it does allow her the opportunity to rebuild her shattered confidence.  Lene’s generosity and kindness are expressed in every frame, as she goes to great measures to protect Nelly and insure she is as comfortable as possible, consolidating her family assets, while it’s her fervent desire they may both move to a new Zionist homeland currently envisioned as Palestine, a safe refuge for Jews displaced by the war.  What better place to start a new life?  A staunch Nazi hater, Lene can’t continue to live among them or even bear listening to German songs anymore, though for Nelly, she continues to find rapturous delight in the Germany she once knew.  When shown pictures of Haifa, where they could live overlooking the sea, there is a suggestion of sexual undertone when Nelly almost contemptuously replies “I am not a Jew,” raising questions not only about her identity but her state of mind, a stranger to the changing world around her as she insists upon finding her lost husband Johnny, where thoughts of him were the only thing that kept her alive in the dark days of the camps where she lost her entire family. 

As much about individual destinies as an emphasis on social conditions, in their former lives Nelly was a cabaret singer to his piano playing, so she searches the bars for any trace of him, finally discovering him working as an impoverished busboy in a decadent Berlin night club appropriately named Phoenix, a music hall beer drinking establishment for soldiers featuring showgirls and musical entertainment, where we see a tawdry German rendition of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.”  While she is petrified at what he will think, Johnny, Ronald Zehrfeld from Barbara (2012), doesn’t recognize her (described by the director in Cinema Scope [Adam Neyman] as two ghosts that can’t recognize each other), too busy scraping by at the bottom end of the wage scale.  Undeterred, she tries again, introducing herself as Esther (the name of her dead sister), to which he replies, “There aren’t many of those left,” where her persistence gets her thrown out of the club, but Johnny has other ideas, concocting an idea where he can use her resemblance to impersonate his dead wife who stands to inherit the family fortune locked away in a Swiss bank, becoming a mad homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), both men haunted by the tragic loss of their dead wives, literally trying to reinvent them with another woman, training them to look, act, and talk the same, wearing the same clothes and hair style, as if resurrecting a ghost.  Despite the wickedness of Johnny’s harebrained scheme, Nelly allows herself to be used, literally playing the part of herself, clinging to the beleaguered hopes that her husband would recognize her for who she is, at one point feverishly waking up Lene in the middle of the night to excitedly reveal, “I know he loves her” (referring to herself), but Johnny is equally certain of her death.  Lene has no interest in Johnny and in fact despises him, warning Nelly that it was Johnny who betrayed her to the Gestapo, where according to records she uncovered he was arrested two days before and was released on the same day as her arrest.  Lene’s profound influence over this film is remarkable, noted by her clear, unambiguous archival revelations and her measured assurance, as she comes to represent the Jewish reaction “after” the war, a voice of unwavering authority that some have chosen to ignore to this very day.   Refusing to believe the man she loves is a Nazi collaborator, having spent months during wartime hiding in a hole, Nelly has her own doubts, where her shattered interior world struggles to heal, but she willingly plays along with his tortuous game, and in doing so the audience delves even deeper into Johnny’s dubious personality. 

Delving into realms of moral duplicity, Petzold builds suspense by continually allowing unanswered questions to linger, where the audience remains in doubt whether Johnny ever loved her or could actually expose her to the Nazi’s, and is he just pretending not to know her real identity?  All the characters come under a broader cloud of suspicion in the immediate aftermath of the war, as who among them was not a willing participant?  What friends and neighbors were also collaborators and betrayers?  How many ordinary citizens simply looked the other way?  The setting itself is fraught with fear and suspicion, where the tantalizing mood is drenched in a suffocating atmosphere of dread.  The deeper one gets into the psychological plight of each character, the more the world around them is stained by the toxic lead-in to war.  Perhaps most revealing is a family photograph that Nelly discovers taken before the war, where circles have been placed around the heads of those identified as Nazi’s while crosses are placed above those that are now dead.  It’s a horrifying notion to think that one’s fondest memories have been defiled and contaminated by the despicable acts of one’s own country.  Brilliantly conceived and masterfully crafted, Petzold reaches elevated territory in this impressionistic psychological mosaic that becomes a literal postwar reawakening to the reality of the world around them.  Joining the ranks of essential postwar films, Petzold shows how delusion becomes a coping mechanism for an enveloping madness, like Johnny, whose refusal to recognize his wife (or the role he played in her capture) is not by accident, as he comes to signify those ordinary citizens blinded by their own willful collusion, refusing to see their own complicity in the crimes taking place around them, which may start out as fear or a defense mechanism, but saving themselves at any cost ends up becoming a way of life that eventually leads to the Holocaust.  Many more lives are lost to suicide even after the war is over as a result of “collateral damage,” a descent into a moral disillusionment that evokes a special note of sadness.  But this is ultimately a film about Nelly, a lone survivor whose longing to claw her way back into a reconstructed German society represents the need of an entire nation, where the agonizing doubts and concerns are reflected in the marvelously subtle performance by Nina Hoss, who is the real star of the show in a remarkable portrait of a devastated society suffering the impact of enormous historic crimes, where the postwar debacle is revealed in the broken wreckage of fallen debris and ruined lives.  Shot in the Brandenburg region in Germany by Hans Fromm’s dark cinematography, with a few shots in Wroclaw, Poland, the jazz score by Stefan Will is particularly expressive, setting the tone of eloquent, emotional restraint.  If this film does anything, however, it delivers enormously with a huge payoff in the virtuosic final scene, where everything in the entire film leads to this moment, and Petzold delivers with one of the great cinematic endings that resonates so powerfully that it will become one of the most discussed shots in the annals of cinema history, Speak Low performed by Nina Hoss @ Phoenix YouTube (3:01, recommend not to be watched until “after” seeing the film), where part of its power is its unexpectedness, yet according to the director, TIFF Review: Petzold's “Phoenix” Soars – City By Heart, the ending plays out quite differently in front of German audiences.  By itself, it’s hardly spectacular, but seen in context with everything that has come before, the composite effect is simply stunning, an indictment of Johnny, and the nation’s, collective forgetfulness, where the specter of the past seeps into the uncertain present and all lingering questions and concerns are finally put to rest.  

An excerpt from Jeffrey Fleishman’s interview with the director from The LA Times, July 29, 2015, World Cinema: Christian Petzold's 'Phoenix' haunted by ...

The eerie mood and questions raised by “Phoenix” have intrigued Petzold.  He said his next film will be set in the 1940’s in the French town of Marseille as refugees hide and hurry to catch boats to Mexico as the German army closes in.  Part of him, he said, wants to capture the aura and verve of German filmmakers, such as Fritz Lang and Max Ophüls, who fled to America to escape Hitler.

“The light from Germany went to the U.S.A. in the 1930s,” he said.  “We have to bring the light and style back to Germany, especially the noir which was created by Austrian and German refugees.” 

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