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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Well If You Must Scream

We can scream if we want to!

We can scream if we want to!

Inspired by the current polling going on at Wonders in the Dark  (which for my money is the best movie blog site on the web right now) concerning the Best Films of the 1970’s, I decided to catch up on some of the great films from that decade I had yet to see.  One thing led to another, and there I was with the obscure Edvard Munch sitting atop my Netflix queue.  Directed by renowned forefather of the docudrama, Britian’s Peter Watkins, this complex and nearly four hour long biopic of Norwegian post-Impressionist painter Edvard Munch was originally made as a miniseries for Norwegian/Swedish TV in 1974.  It was released theatrically around the world in 1976 and was recently done up as a two-disc special edition on DVD.  I watched it in those two parts over the course of two nights and was completely transfixed.

Brazenly presented in the style of a documentary, Watkins’ film begs you to feel as if his cameras were literally there from “moment one” in Munch’s childhood during the late 1800’s all they way up through the abrupt close of the film half way through his life around 1910.  Continue reading

The Beijing Olympics

Now Playing in Beijing:  TRIUMPH OF THE PAGEANT

On the eighth hour of the eighth day of the eighth month in 2008 (Beijing time), the Communist run economic powerhouse and 1.5 billion people strong Chinese Machine finally had their coming out party.

The first images are streaming in from the Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.  Famed filmmaker Zhang Yimou (who has been responsible for Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower) staged the epic event with all the grand pageantry of his signature films.

The images are dreadfully beautiful and sumptuous, though the particular slide show linked below also features a hilarious shot of our President Dubya and the wife Laura with horrified looks on their faces as they are shown to their seats.  Could they be afraid of a little propaganda?  I highly recommend clicking the link and flipping through all the photographs to get the full effect of the power of what has been staged:

http://www.nbcolympics.com/destinationbeijing/photos/galleryid=183709.html?GT1=39003

I’ve been trying to avoid political commentary on this blog lately, but these amazing images couldn’t go unnoticed.  Why does it all remind me of Leni Reifenstahl, Triumph of the Will, and the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics?

The Opening Ceremonies will be televised tonight on NBC.

To keep track of the overall Medal Standings as the Olympics progress, click below:

http://results.beijing2008.cn/WRM/ENG/INF/GL/95A/GL0000000.shtml

Written by David H. Schleicher