Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 01, 2015 3:53 pm 
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What the war made of us

Using his muse Nina Hoss for the sixth time, Christian Petzold takes on a Forties or Fifties genre picture topic that's ridiculously far-fetched, but his treatment is so brilliant, weighty, and haunting, that doesn't matter. A woman arrives in Berlin in a car, a Nazi death camp survivor, evidently, with her face all wrapped in bloody bandages. She is accompanied by her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a clerk in the Hall of Jewish Records. Later she has reconstructive plastic surgery where she's given the option to be made to look like a popular actress, but chooses to look like her old self. Facial bones were shattered with bullets. When Nina Hoss's face emerges it doesn't look much different, just darkly bruised around the eyes. She seeks out her husband, Johnny (the soft, sensuous, pretty Ronald Zehrfeld). It seems she was a known cabaret singer, Jewish, he a pianist. She finds him at a nightclub in the American zone called Phoenix, working as a busboy. We are to believe he thinks she looks like his wife, Nelly Lenz, but does not know it is really her. He wants to exploit her to claim Nelly Lenz's now substantial accumulated wealth. This in spite of the fact that he may have betrayed her to gain his own freedom just before she was taken away.

As Scott Foundas suggests in his Variety review, Petzold likes to take us into the complexities of German contemporary history through American genre films, and does so this time through "the rich strain of doppelganger psychodramas (A Woman’s Face, Vertigo, Seconds)." We might think of Franju's Eyes Without a Face too. Not much is made of the miracle of reconstructive surgery. Nelly looks at a photo of herself and others. She is there. Some survived, others are dead. We follow her. Though there are always noises -- voices, shuffling, vague music -- around in the background, every scene is of Nelly. And there is not much movement. Johnny is brutal, strange. He wants to keep Nelly a virtual prisoner, to reappear on a train coming into Berlin, surprising everyone. He wants her in a red dress and Paris shoes, despite the absurdity of arriving from Auschwitz in such attire.

The point is, neither Johnny nor Nelly is in possession of her self. Nor is it sure if she is alive or dead. What happens later to Lene clarifies this point. Lene has plans to live in Palestine; there's even an apartment in Haifa. But she is not sure if she is closer to the future or to the past, to the living or the dead. To strengthen this feeling, Nina Hoss moves with preternatural stillness, almost a zombie. The actress always maintains a Zenlike focus, immobile, ineloquent, yet radiating emotion and intelligence. This is a film that doesn't have to say anything. It ponders the imponderable: the radical alterations that occurred to Germans and Jews in the War. The mystery of Nelly's attraction to Johnny, despite the fact that neither has a fix on their own identity or the other's. There's a desperate grasp for meaning, or simply security, in a world that has lost all meaning.

Petzold directs Zehrfeld, Hoss, and an eccentric period-looking group of secondary actors representing friends and associates of the couple in a final sequence, and a final scene, and a final shot, that sums up all the mystery in a moment of hypnotic solemnity and shock that shows what a serious and masterful filmmaker this man is. Foundas thinks Phoenix (which refers to Johnny's nightclub but also the theme) is "the fiercely talented Petzold’s most broadly accessible work to date, and should reach his largest international audience."

Phoenix, 98 mins., debuted at Toronto 2014, and showed at twenty-odd other international festivals. It opened in Paris 28 January 2015 to rave reviews (AlloCiné press rating 4.2). Screened for this review during Film Comment Selects at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center, 28 February 2015. IFC release in US theaters via Sundance Selects Friday, 24 July 2015. Metacritic rating: 91%.


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