Monday, January 4, 2016

"Phoenix" Soars

As we get further and further away in time from the Holocaust, there are more films about it than ever.  However, in recent years we've been mostly seeing films that deal with the lingering aftereffects over many years, like "Sarah's Key," "Ida," and "Woman in Gold."  However, the German film "Phoenix" is one of the few I've found that takes place in the immediate aftermath, following the story of a survivor who tries to come home and rebuild her life and relationships.

Concentration camp survivor Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) returns to Berlin after undergoing facial reconstruction surgery which alters her appearance.  She recuperates under the care of her cousin Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), who tries to dissuade her from going to search for her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may have given Nelly up to the Nazis.  Nelly sneaks out anyway, and does find Johnny, who is working in a nightclub. He fails to recognize her, but noting that she has a strong resemblance to his wife, proposes that she stand in for her in a scheme to access Nelly's sizable inheritance.  Nelly, using the name Esther, allows Johnny to coach and make her over into the image of her former self, while hiding her true identity from him.

I watched most of "Phoenix" in a state of incredulity.  How long was Nelly going to keep up the ruse?  Couldn't she see that Johnny didn't have her best interests at heart, no matter whether he knew that she was his wife or not?  Why would she continue to subject herself to this?  initially the details of the plot were something out of a lurid melodrama, bordering on the unbelievable.  However, Nina Hoss's performance and the careful handling of the material won me over.  Nelly is a woman who has suffered from a terrible trauma, who has lost her identity and is desperate to regain some semblance of her happy past self.  Hoss is excellent at getting across exactly what she gets from her reconnection to Johnny, even if it is under false pretenses.  Her face lights up in his presence, and she seems to regain a little more life and energy with every encounter.

The no-frills style of the filmmaking makes "Phoenix" feel like a much older film than it is, taking its visual cues from films of the 1940s, but its plotting and themes from psychodramas of the 1960s and 1970s.  The scope of the story is kept small and intimate, mostly concerned with conversations between Nelly and Johnny, and Nelly and Lene.  The source material was a 1961 detective novel, "Return from Ashes," which was apparently a more conventional genre thriller.  Only the barest essentials of the story were retained, focusing on Nelly's recovery.  Director Christian Petzold keeps the mood delicate and the visuals sparse, but also bold when necessary.  There's a wonderfully cold desolation to the Berlin we glimpse during Nelly's nocturnal meetings, contrasting with the photographs from happier times.  Environments seem to mirror Nelly's own psyche, as she grapples with guilt, loss, and deep feelings for her husband that cannot be easily discarded.

A few years ago Petzold made the excellent drama "Barbara," about an East German doctor trapped in a difficult situation, with Hoss and Zehrfeld playing the leads.  That film's visuals were more grounded in reality, the characters more down-to-earth and true to life.  Comparing "Barbara" and "Phoenix," the degree of stylization becomes more apparent in the latter film.  From what I can tell, "Phoenix" is the first film where Petzold has departed from realism in such a fashion, and it's wonderful seeing him explore new filmmaking territory this way.  

I'm not fond of Holocaust films, as even the most well-intentioned and well-executed of them tend to fixate on the depths of the Nazi depravity and the old wounds that have never fully healed.  "Phoenix," at least has a new take on the topic, examining the mindset of a woman who has to acknowledge that she'll never be able to go back to the way things were before she can begin to rebuild.  And the film has one the most absolutely perfect endings that I've seen all year - implausible, yes, but well earned.


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