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 Review of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”

The Holocaust Presented as a Grim Children’s Fable, 14 November 2008
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

It’s official. The award now goes to the British for making the most depressing film I have ever seen. For the first time in my movie-going life I witnessed an audience member’s physical reaction to a film when a father was observed outside the screening room for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas collapsed against the wall with his child emotionally distraught and crying in his lap. With the rest of the audience, including myself, stunned into silence after the film and exiting the theater a communal internalized wreck, I don’t know if I was more devastated by what I had witnessed on screen or by that poor little child out in the hallway whose father for some reason thought this film would provide a history lesson his child could stomach at such a young age. As the film proves, the innocent are not cut out for war.

That being said, I would recommend The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to anyone emotionally prepared to sit through it. The film’s climax will hit you like a sucker punch to the gut…but there is a lesson to be learned for those in the right frame of mind and mature enough to handle it. In adapting John Boyne’s novel, director Mark Herman envisions the Holocaust as a grim child’s fable, and in doing so, presents the historical events from a daringly simple new angle. Yes, Life is Beautiful attempted something similar not so long ago, but that film was told from the point of view of a child-like man trying to shield his son from horrors and had abrupt tonal shifts that sank its dramatic impact. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, however, keeps a powerfully consistent tone, and until the harrowing final act, is entirely told from the point-of-view of the young son of a German commandant assigned to run a concentration camp.

Herman directs the film fairly well, utilizing visual motifs and not so subtle foreshadowing (that left me with a sinking feeling in my gut as the film progressed), and he is aided greatly by the wonderful cinematography by Benoit Delhomme. The script, though contrived in parts, is tight and moves at a brisk pace, and the normally sappy composer James Horner shows great restraint with his score that is both haunting and reverent to the events that unfold. The mostly British cast is stunning. As little Bruno, Asa Butterfield successfully permits us to relate to the child’s naïve innocence without ever allowing the character to become cloying or blissfully ignorant. David Thewlis commands attention as his tortured and misguided father, and Vera Farmiga is dynamite as his distressed mother. She gives a powerhouse performance and proves yet again to be a gripping chameleon of an actress nearing the level of a Cate Blanchett.

With its slim run-time, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas seems a sound choice for a future generation of teachers to show their high school students in lieu of an epic like Schindler’s List. It also makes a good visual companion piece to Eli Wiesel’s literary Night as it shows a fictionalized flip-side to the same tragedy. As the real survivor accounts sadly fade with the passing of time, the horrors of the Holocaust will remain firmly in place in the world’s historical fiction for centuries to come long after the last person who actually witnessed it has died. These stories will forever be screaming at us, and we would be wise to listen. Fault the film if you wish, but in its bold child-like simplicity it shows the insidious evil of the Nazis as two-fold. Yes, they slaughtered six-million innocent Jews, but it was an act of murder-suicide as in doing so they also sentenced themselves to death.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0914798/usercomments-43