Phoenix (Germany, 2014)

Directed by: Christian Petzold. Prior to embarking on a big trip to Europe, I decided to bump up my European films, as you’ll see in the next few posts. This is one I came across by accident, by looking at the cover, reading the summary, and being intrigued. The basic plot is nuts—a Holocaust survivor and former jazz singer comes back to Berlin after the war, with a new face, and she tries to connect with her beloved husband, who possibly sold out her to the Nazis in the first place. When she finds him, he doesn’t recognize her, and she can’t tell him who she really is…but she plays along with his game—pretend to be the dead wife (which she is) so we can get her money. He betrays her to her face, but she can’t believe that he really betrayed her before…it’s a very convoluted, emotional maze, made believable by the fervent passionate, delusional level of devotion she still feels for him, even as he ignores her. Mostly I picked it up because I’m fascinated by the world of postwar Berlin, that immediate world of rubble and destruction that people lived in, and I hoped to learn something about it. And there is some of that in there, that world of taboo, upside-down, weird, post-social-order, late night cabarets with American soldiers and German jazz singers, etc. But really, this movie is about the inner world of this woman, who has had her whole personality torn down, and we watch it build slowly back up again through the course of the film. In the beginning, we kind of don’t know who she is, and her friend is the one who really fills out the movie for us. But the lead, Nina Hoss, feels so slight, so ghostly, so permanently traumatized, that she’ll drift away if you blow on her. I confess, I had a hard time following the first half, I almost didn’t care what happened. But that husband is such a piece of shit, and the circumstances around what happened are so slight and unknown, that you’re drawn in, and she’s drawn in, and her passive fawning changes and develops and gets really tortured and complicated. By the end, she’s one of the strongest characters I’ve ever seen in a movie, and it’s a really amazing transformation to behold. This isn’t the best film ever, or even the best film about WWII ever, but it’s a memorable, expertly crafted, mid-budget independent German film, and that’s exactly what I wanted.

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