Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Christian Petzold's PHOENIX explores post-Holocaust love, identity, guilt and avarice

That old standard, "Speak Low," gets quite the workout in PHOENIX, a new film from German movie-maker Christian Petzold, who seems, with each addition to his oeuvre, to be journey-ing further and further back in time and history. His Yella and Jerichow were relatively modern-day tales; Barbara took us back to East Germany in the 1980s; now his new one reaches all the way to immediately post-Holocaust, as the few Jews left were returning to their former homes throughout Europe -- or heading for Palestine.

As is the case in all of Petzold's work I've seen -- the co-writer (with Harun Farocki) and director is shown at left -- the plot relies on a very interesting, and usually only partially believable twist, played for all it is worth. And with this filmmaker, that means it's worth at least a watch. Phoenix, in my estimation, proves his most fully satisfying work to date because it takes the several themes at hand -- the Holocaust, self-identity (with emphasis on those of both Judaism and feminism), physical appearance, loyalty and love -- and blends them into a surprisingly effective whole.

If Herr Petzold could be said to have a muse, it would be his lead actress in several films: Nina Hoss (above, right, below, left and poster, top), who is as fine here as she always is, maybe even better. Ms Hoss has the ability to convince us that reams of subtext, as well as an enormous and roiling past exists within her slight frame and beautiful, expressive face -- all of which is true in the case of her character, Nelly.

Nelly has just returned from a concentration camp, where she was left for dead from a gunshot wound to the skull. In addition to being resuscitated, she has also undergone a major face lift, hoping to get something like her original face but coming up with a visage that is similar but also different enough to be a tad confusing.

Her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf, above) is making arrangements for the two of them to leave for Palestine, but Nelly is not ready for that. She wants to find her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, below), a pianist who used to accompany her on the piano when she sang professionally.  Clearly still head-over-heels about the man, Nelly can't abide the idea, planted rather firmly by Lene, that her husband ratted her out as a Jew to the Gestapo so he could play the get-out-of-jail-free card.

The set-up is clear and the movie proceeds from that set-up, full speed ahead but with enough ambiguity and mixed signals to keep us -- and its characters -- on our toes. Nelly's identity is locked into her love for Johnny more strongly than anything that happened to her in the camp as a Jew (this fact riles Lene not a little).

And though Johnny appears pretty much as Lene paints him, so obsessive and enormous is Nelly's love for the guy that she has us wondering if, maybe hoping that, she could be right. The movie rises slowly to some excellent suspense, some striking visuals, and to a finale that is absolutely on the mark -- emotionally, psychologically and dramatically sound.

Performances are fine from all involved, and one of the pleasures of the movie is that, while providing suspense and entertainment, it never slights the importance of the Holocaust to history (and German history), and in fact offers up a few choice ideas about human behavior and our ability to all too easily forget and even forgive.

Phoenix, from Sundance Selects -- the title refers to a club in which cabaret and other post-war amenities (above) are offered and at which our Johnny has a job, as well as to that famed Firebird rising from the ashes -- opens this Friday, Just 24, in New York City at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema. In the Los Angeles area, look for it at various Laemmle theaters beginning July 31.

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