Survivor’s Guilt and a Phoenix Soaring to Rarefied Cinematic Heights

Phoenix - In the Ashes

War can change a person to where they become unrecognizable to their loved ones and to themselves.  It can ravage people and places.  It can disfigure a person’s body and soul.

Writer-director Christian Petzold takes this idea literally in his masterful new neo-noir, Phoenix, where his long-time muse, Nina Hoss, delivers a performance for the ages as Nelly, a concentration camp survivor who undergoes facial reconstruction surgery and then finds herself in the psychologically complex predicament of having to go under disguise as another woman pretending to be herself so as to find out the truth about her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may or may not have been the one who betrayed her to the Nazis during the war.

Phoenix - Club

Despite the warnings of her friend and confidant, Lene (a bleak and soulful Nina Kuzendorf) who hopes for Nelly to rest and recover while she works out the legality of claiming Nelly’s family inheritance so that they can join the flux of survivors to Palestine, Nelly wanders the ravaged Berlin landscape mourning bombed out homes, hiding under a widow’s mask and traipsing through the shadows like a Frankenstein monster until she comes across the down-and-out Phoenix nightclub where American soldiers mix with the German underbelly looking to ply them with sex and show tunes.  Nelly, a former torch signer, and Johnny, a former pianist, find themselves in this hellish version of their former lives, both on the outskirts looking in, not able to perform.  He sees her as someone who looks vaguely like his dead wife, who he now wishes to resurrect so he can collect the inheritance (which he promises to split with her if she plays along).  She sees him as a shell of the man she once fell in love with and who she desperately wishes she could fall in love with again. Thus a grand charade begins, and they are soon caught up in perverse duplicity where emotions and guilt run high.

Petzold films scenes in perfect frames and shadows, evoking a chamber-piece version of The Third Man, without it ever seeming overly stylish.  Meanwhile Hoss’ physical stiffness is in stark contrast to her otherwise subtle performance where she speaks volumes with her eyes and facial expressions – expertly showing the audience the dichotomy of her predicament where she must hide herself from everyone while inside her inner turmoil runneth over (leaving Nelly to literally lurch).  It’s such a controlled performance (inside such a controlled, economic film where not a single shot or line of dialogue is wasted) that when Nelly’s full transformation occurs at the film’s end, it a pure moment of cinematic awe where the audience is left gasping.

SPOILER ALERTS – DO NOT READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM – It is highly recommended you see the film on as clean a slate as possible, then come back and read the following paragraphs to join the conversation.

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A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man

Here’s one of the many reasons why the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman will be so sorely missed:  his mere presence prompted other actors/actresses to up their game.  Case in point here in A Most Wanted Man:  the couldn’t be lovelier but normally vapid Rachel McAdams, shaky German accent and all, manages to actually make you feel for her troubled lawyer accused of being a social worker for terrorists.  What’s even more amazing is that in an adaptation of John Le Carre novel you actually feel anything for anyone!  With the emotional powder keg of The Constant Gardner being the exception to the rule, Le Carre’s spy procedurals are normally colder than an interrogation room metal tabletop.  Yet Anton Corbijn wisely allows his A-list cast to tap into the quiet, bubbling under the surface, heartbreak of this post 9/11 spy-eat-spy world.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is Gunther Backmann, a world-weary German intelligence station chief in Hamburg who was burned by the CIA at his last post in Beirut where assets were betrayed and lives lost.  He’s quietly been toiling away, utilizing McAdam’s liberal lawyer to reel in his minnow, a Chechen Muslim who entered Germany under cloak and dagger, that he hopes to dangle in front his barracuda, a renowned Islamic political activist and spiritual leader thought to be secretly funding a shipping company with terrorist ties.  He tries to keep the CIA, represented by a professionally flirtatious Robin Wright, at bay, while aided by his right-hand woman played with subtle skill by the fantastic Nina Hoss.  Willem Dafoe, meanwhile, plays a banker used as a pawn to channel the alleged funds that were left behind in secret by the Chechen’s recently deceased Russian crime lord father. Continue reading

They’re Coming to Get You, Barbara

Director Christian Petzold has Nina Hoss go "into the woods" in BARBARA.

Director Christian Petzold has Nina Hoss go “into the woods” in BARBARA.

In 1980 in East Germany a Berlin doctor (Nina Hoss in the titular role) is banished to a provincial village in the latest from auteur Christian Petzold, who again uses Hoss as his muse as he did so well in earlier films like Yella and Jerichow.  Barabara plays it cold as ice in her new locale, while her West German lover hatches a plan to get her out by way of the sea and Denmark.  Meanwhile, she can’t help but get sucked into tragic cases involving local teens while a provincial officer subjects her to humiliating and routine searches of her apartment and body.  In a police state, even in a rural paradise, everyone is under suspicion.

In some ways Petzold’s Barbara plays like a pastoral version of The Lives of Others, but it’s more mellow drama than melodrama.  Petzold holds back almost everything, his directorial style perhaps meant to mirror the psyche of those who lived under the Iron Curtain in East Germany and had to watch their every move while being monitored by the State.  Details of Barbara’s past, as well as the pasts of others are sparse.  Petzold mostly shows, rarely tells.  Classical music, a famous Rembrandt painting and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are woven effortlessly into the story to add layers and fill in pieces of character development.  Most things are to be inferred, and he’s blessed with Hoss’s controlled performance where she reveals little outwardly but speaks volumes with her eyes and restrained body language.  Continue reading