Phoenix – Christian Petzold (2015)

Phoenix is a film that seeks to understand how we live through traumatic events. It is also a film about the passing of time, and the effect that passing has on our relationships, and on ourselves. Is it possible to recapture, or reestablish, what once was? Is there power in returning to places and people of past import, a prospect of mastery and satisfaction in regaining what was lost, or instead is it the mark of weakness, a sign of an inability to accept that the past is closed and to embrace the reality of the new person looking back at us in the mirror? Is the return a rebuke to those who scorned or betrayed us, a kind of revenge upon the past and a reassertion of our own identity, or instead a kind of stasis, a blind alley we venture down, inviting further trauma and abuse, in our inability to accept new realities? With this film, Christian Petzold delves into questions of identity not only on a personal level, but on a national one as well. Scripted by the director and the late, great Harun Faroki, Phoenix is very reminiscent of the kammerspiele films made in Germany during the early to mid 1920s. Those films, such as Murnau’s The Last Man or Jessner’s Backstairs, tend to feature lower middle class protagonists stuck in closed loops of possibility and identity formation. Often set in a few locations, most often the interiors of dingy apartments (or a men’s washroom, in the case of The Last Man), these films concentrate on psychodrama and character development, using expressionistic camerawork and lighting to augment the internal emotional states of their subjects (as well as make up for the lack of action in a more traditional sense). Set just after the end of the first World War, these films reference the damage of that conflict, both upon the bodies of their characters, and, albeit in sublimated form, upon the national character as a whole. Phoenix is similarly set just after a World War, but we have moved forward 20 years, and so find ourselves not in a world of the decrepit escapism and febrile political rebirth provided by the early Weimar years, but instead within the rubble of a destroyed and conquered Berlin, seemingly in a trance after its “liberation” from Nazi power. It asks the strange question – what would happen if you returned to the scene of your former life, went unrecognized, and then were asked to impersonate yourself?

We begin in the days just after the war, shortly after the liberation of the camps by Allied forces. Our protagonist is Nelly, a successful and cosmopolitan singer before the war who, ethnically Jewish but non-practicing, was at first hidden by her friends and husband until she was perhaps sold out by them. Her husband, Johnny, was a successful pianist, but not Jewish. When we meet Nelly, she has just barely survived the camps, and has been disfigured by violence shortly before they fell. Accompanied by her friend, caretaker, and Zionist Lene, Nelly undergoes plastic surgery to restore her face. She is warned that she should pick a new “type” of visage, as trying to get her back to her old self will leave her in an uncanny place, partly looking like she used to, partly a stranger. Regardless, she wants to look as close to her past self as she can. Healed up and, presumably, occupying the doubly uncanny space of not quite looking like herself while slipping back into the city she once called home, now a broken edifice, Nelly becomes obsessed with news of Johnny, and wishes a reunion. Lene tries to convince her that Johnny was the cause of her suffering, but Nelly is unconvinced (or perhaps simply still in love). She searches the streets, and then the nightclubs, until she discovers him, working, not as a musician, but as a busboy. After a few missed connections, she finally gets to speak with him, but he does not recognize her, and she does not reveal her true identity. Taking her for someone desperate for work, rather than truth, Johnny (now calling himself Johannes) suggests that since she somewhat resembles his past wife, whom he is convinced is dead, Nelly should enter into a deception with him. She will pretend to be his wife, mocking up a return to the city for the benefit of their friends, and, ultimately, to his benefit, as his wife was due to inherit her family’s estate (since the entire family was murdered in the camps). Nelly will pretend to be… Nelly, long enough for Johnny to claim the estate. Nelly will get a cut, she is assured. So we enter this strange, dreamlike pas de deux where Nelly lives most of the time with Johnny, observing him, trying to ferret out the truth of his betrayal. Was it forced upon him by circumstance – and hence is there a possibility for a reunion? Or did he sell her out callously, revealing himself to be a different man than she believed? Lene, of course, is horrified at this turn of events. About how the plot resolves itself, I will say no more, except that it is one of those rare films (rare except in the works of a master like Tarkovsky) where the final shot reveals everything, bringing together all the threads of the narrative as well as laying bare the emotional truths at play throughout. In this, Phoenix is fairly singular among recent films, as it practically demands to be viewed a second time in order to sort through the implications of the resolution and to allow us to feel the full force of the ambivalences and ironies at play in this tragedy. (Or is it a story of strength and redemption)?

The narrative may sound contrived. In some ways, it is guilty on this count, but it matters not, as we understand we are witnessing not just a character drama, but a larger metaphor for the afterlife. Not heaven, mind you, but life after the world has been destroyed. In the reunion of Nelly and Johnny, we witness the attempted assimilation of the survivors of a pogrom into a social fabric that they, years earlier, would have called their own. We sense that Johnny is now Johannes as a way to shore up his German identity post-facto; not as a way of proving his nationalism (as he might have done during the war), but as a means of convincing himself that this is who he was all along, as a way of both explaining to himself why he could do what he did, as well as running from the memory of that past life (in this way, the name becomes his scarlet letter). Nelly is trying to come to terms with the betrayal of an entire nation as it is personified in the people she knew and loved; were these people different than she always thought, or were they too the instruments of a diabolical machine far beyond anyone’s control? Are they sorry? Do they feel guilty? Are they even responsible for what happened to her? By being asked to impersonate herself, Nelly becomes a metaphor for her own impossible situation – she is still the same, and she is also completely different. She is, in effect, being asked to live both in the past, and in the future, with the present a kind of waking nightmare. The film has a taste of noir, but the airless, compressed, and dreamlike nature of the narrative is more reminiscent of the previously mentioned kammerspiele, and the different registers the film works in removes any reluctance we might have to accept this contrivance as truth. For Nelly is a contrived person – she is trying to recover an identity stolen from her while accounting for the fact that everyone she knew has also had something taken from them. In a way, the ending suggests, she is in the best possible position, for whatever her future, she does not have to reconcile her own guilt, or wonder what lie she has chosen to live. Her mask is sewn onto her face – she really is a new person – whereas her countrymen are left wondering, perhaps, if the mask they once donned is their true self, or worse, if there is a difference between the mask and the reality. Petzold is a well regarded German director, but one whose work I know far too little of – while he is responsible for prominent films such as Jerichow (2008) and Barbara (2012), I am only familiar with his entry in the Dreileben trilogy (his entry, the excellent first segment Something Better than Death (2011), deals with young love and class relations in an exceptionally nuanced and heartbreaking way). Phoenix is a rarity, in that it provides no answers, easy or otherwise, and no closure, while being sensitive to the points of view, and the pain, of all its characters, be they tainted by their choices or not. While the phoenix is often the emblem of rebirth, a kind of token for moving on, Petzold concentrates on the ashes, and on the struggle that lies behind the attempt to keep going. For ashes also signify rest, and finality, whereas the process of birth is a violent one. Rebirth is no more of a choice than death is, and the true horror of Nelly’s ordeal is that, dead or alive, she has no way out of it. At the same time, the phoenix can fly, and the film also suggests that impersonating herself might not help her fly off to a wonderful new life, but that she can perhaps climb above the world that left her behind.

Four and a half stars out of five


The Last of the Unjust – Claude Lanzmann (2014)

Lanzmann, best known for his masterpiece Shoah, has extended that project with a few other films in the last ten or so years. Sobibor, Oct. 14, 1943, 4 p.m. told the story of Yehuda Lerner, who lead an uprising and eventual escape from the titular extermination camp. The Karski Report recounted the history of FDR’s unwillingness to intervene in the early years of the Holocaust after being notified of the horrors by Polish Army courier Jan Karski. Both of these films, while having to do with the Holocaust, fill out areas of interest mostly untouched by Shoah itself. The Last of the Unjust revisits material from Shoah directly, in the form of extended interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, the last Elder of the Jews (and the only to survive the war), the president of the Jewish Council in the “show ghetto” of Theresienstadt, and self-appellated “last of the unjust.” Murmelstein, as the political leader of the ghetto, was in close contact with Adolph Eichmann, and was tainted by this contact, considered suspect basically for having survived the war, and for (as the film eventually explores) working to improve the ghetto, which had the side effect of making it more effective for propaganda purposes. Because of this, he was imprisoned after the war and then lived in exile in Rome for the rest of his life, rather than emigrating to Israel.

In many ways, this feels like Lanzmann’s most intimate film, and his most chronologically resonant. Anyone who has seen Shoah will recognize the aesthetic; in that film, he eschewed period footage in favor of returning, in that film’s present day, to the sites of the atrocities. In The Last of the Unjust, he deploys a similar stratagem, but is now at a once remove, both from Shoah and from Murmelstein – he travels to the present days sites that form Murmelstein’s chronology and story, and reconstitutes the past by reading from Murmelstein’s writings at the sites, and by unfurling large portions of the Murmelstein interview conducted for Shoah. He also makes use of the art representing the ghetto produced by its inmates during their interment. So while this is a film about Theresienstadt, it is also a portrait of Murmelstein as a man, and as a friend (or at least someone Lanzmann obviously admires). Much of the film is Murmelstein talking; at first he seems purely heroic and self-effacing, but later Lanzmann complicates this by asking harder questions about his “collaboration” with the Nazis and his choices during the later stages of the war. Murmelstein is not defensive, and a complex portrait of a man in an impossible situation emerges – he makes no bones about the fact that defending and improving the ghetto was of paramount importance to him (and at one point even claims that he and the ghetto were one and the same thing, although he does not mean this in a megalomaniacal sense). By the end of the film, we might feel that, all judgement being impossible (this is one of the key points of Shoah, that agency, and hence an ethics, was suspended in toto for those in the camps), he might have something in common with Colonel Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai, in that he came to love too dearly that which allowed him to hold onto some semblance of a world. Beyond these issues, the film is very interesting, and indeed touching, as a conversation between two old men: Lanzmann, in 2013, near the age that Murmelstein was some 35 or so years earlier. Lanzmann appears on camera more than in his other films, and by reading Murmelstein’s text, performs his absence. We get the feeling that he too identifies as a “last of the unjust” – the end of the film confirms his affinity for this man, who survived any way he could for the sake, he says, of telling the story. Essential viewing for documentary fans or for those interested in the Holocaust (which should be all of us, really).

Four stars out of five

The Imitation Game – Morten Tyldum (2014)

Ugg, if there is one genre I tend to detest, it is the bio-pic. Why so, you life loving types might ask? Well, settle onto my knee, sonny, and grump along with me for a moment. First of all, most of the time we are being told a story we already know, so there are rarely any surprises involved. This might be tolerable if the subject were portrayed in an interesting fashion. As it is, most often the subjects of such films are slavishly worshiped, great golden men (and rarely women) held aloft for us to cheaply revel in the glow they reflect, all of us puny crudmuffins now suddenly reawakened to our shared “humanity.” Ah yes, who doesn’t want to shave a piece of self-esteem off the ol’ block of the less than flinty Mahatma, or perhaps even J.C. himself? I dare you, my friends, to look back through biographical films made even in just the last twenty years. Will you find a critical viewpoint? Will you find anything that not only makes you reconsider what you knew, but even keeps you awake? I think not. Tedium and self-righteousness do not a happy pairing (nor a happy viewer) make.

Here endeth the preamble-by-way-of-explanation-hinting-at-an-apologia for seeing, and thus commenting on, The Imitation Game. I was convinced to see it by someone who shall remain nameless. But, lo, good news – it is not bad! Yes, I already knew the story of Alan Turing (spelling his name like a proper Alan should). And yes, there is more than a little basking and past-patronizing in the mix. What makes this good, then? Well, it is very well directed. The structure of the film is more sophisticated than most, moving around the chronology in a way that makes emotional impact, and the overall design of the film (the sets, the costuming, the mise-en-scene and camerawork) evokes the era without italicizing or winking. The performances are also good, and Cumberbatch does make a very sympathetic Turing, even when at his prickliest. Perhaps it is Turing’s outsider nature, and his tragic end, that made me more sympathetic than normal. There is plenty to dislike, but more in the mode of “oh, must you, really?” (disappointment) rather than “cripes!” (sigh, eyes rolling). The film often slips into Hollywood heart-string contrivances – as in the cryptographer who, at the first message successfully decoded, discovers his brother is on the ship they are about to let sink (rather than tip their English hands to the Germans). Punches are thrown, yells are exchanged, “Who are you/we to play God?!?” etc. Such things feel like the screenwriter trying to gin up some teacup tempest dramatics in stiff-upper-lipsville. A poor score mars the film as well – then again, ninety percent of scores are poor and unnecessary. Oh well. Yes, this is a positive review.

Three stars out of five