Phoenix (2014) Film:Director : Christian Petzold


Nelly Lenz, a Jewish singer, has survived the Nazi concentration camps but at what cost? She is disfigured and has had to undergo facial surgery. Back in what is left of Berlin, accompanied by her faithful friend Lene, she has only one thing in mind, finding Johnny, her musician husband in the ruins of the city. She wants to know if he still loves her and if he has betrayed her, as Lene claims he has. She does meet him but Johnny does not recognize her. Worse, he asks her to impersonate… Nelly, with a view to grabbing her inheritance Written by Guy Bellinger

A smoky duet between double-bass and piano at the start of Christian Petzold’s Phoenix promises a dose of film noir. That promise is complicated, if not exactly broken, by what follows. But then, this is a movie all about disguises, reinventions and deceptive appearances.

It begins with a monstrously tantalising scenario. In mid-1940s Germany, a vehicle is halted at night by US soldiers. A figure is whimpering in the passenger seat, their face concealed by blood-soaked bandages. Perhaps we are in for someEyes Without a Face-style horror, then, rather than noir? Half-wrong again.

This is the former chanteuse Nelly (Nina Hoss), a disfigured concentration camp survivor en route to a surgeon in Berlin. Reconstructing her original face now is out of the question. A loose re-creation can be provided instead. It’s like the doctor says: a new face can be an advantage.

When Nelly later tracks down Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the husband who may or may not have shopped her to the Nazis, he fails to recognise her. He does, though, notice that she bears a passing resemblance to his late wife. That gives him an idea: if she were to pose as Nelly, they could split the “dead” woman’s fortune. Enchanted by his attention, and feeling this may be the only way to reclaim her identity, Nelly plays along. Like a master film-maker, Johnny provides her with a back-story, tells her what colour to dye her hair, which clothes to wear. He even choreographs their eventual public reunion. It’s enough to give a girl Vertigo.

This is Petzold’s sixth collaboration with Hoss (who recently made her English-language debut in A Most Wanted Man). Echoes abound of their previous work together. Like Yella (2007), Phoenix takes place in a kind of purgatory; the infernal scarlet glow spilling from the nightclub which gives the film its title suggests it might even be hell. And in common with the duo’s last picture, the Oscar-nominated Barbara (2012), set during the cold war, it offers accessible commentary on recent German history.

But Phoenix is their most complex work to date, as shown by Hoss’s fine-grained performance. Called upon to play a character playing a character playing a character, her dexterity is astonishing. She is part-actor, part-Russian doll.

It’s a testament to Petzold’s sane head, steady hand and effortless storytelling skill that implausible plot-points are smuggled past us in their own blood-soaked bandages. Would Johnny really fail to spot the truth after spending so long in close proximity to this conveniently placed stranger? Would Nelly honestly persist in finding ways to excuse each of her husband’s crimes against her?

In another film, maybe none of this would wash. Here, the warped narrative functions as an allegory for the stories that people and nations recount to themselves in order to go on surviving. The clincher is the use of music, in particular a performance by Hoss of Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s Speak Low(“Love is a spark, lost in the dark too soon…”). It ties together the film’s themes eloquently but with no comforting sense of resolution.

Tiff 2014 – Phoenix

by Brian Tallerico

September 9, 2014

Christian Petzold’s stunning “Phoenix” has been buzzed about this year as the best film of the 2014 Toronto Film Festival. While more high profile, mostly American (or British) works get the headlines, it’s often a foreign film that gets critics talking, and this year’s arguable masterpiece is the latest from the director of “Jerichow” and “Barbara,” a film that, in my eyes, earns every bit of its TIFF adoration, and more. This is an amazing piece of work that transcends historical document to become art. Using the filmic language of noir, Petzold crafts a story of a culture caught in the aftermath of horror. Moving through the rubble of Berlin just after the end of World War II, the characters of “Phoenix” are ghosts, denying past betrayals and putting up a façade to keep the pain repressed. They have done strong work together in the past, but “Phoenix” is the kind of film that should propel Petzold and regular star Nina Hoss to the forefront of international cinema. It’s unforgettable.

Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, a woman who has escaped from a concentration camp, but suffered severe facial injuries in the process. Her whole face will have to be rebuilt, leaving a shadow of her old self, a version of Nelly but not exactly the same one that existed before the war. Despite protestations from the one woman who knows the truth about her, Nelly decides to seek out her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, who also appeared in “Barbara”), even though there’s evidence to suggest that it was he who turned Nelly into the SS. Johnny was arrested on October 4th and released on October 6th, the same day Nelly was arrested. He sold her out for his own safety.

When Nelly crosses paths with Johannes (don’t call him Johnny any more), he notices the resemblance, but has completely convinced himself that his wife must be dead. “She’s dead. I know she’s dead.” It’s a trick of denial, pushing such a horrendous act to history instead of realizing that it may be still there in the present. However, his wife has an unclaimed fortune, and Johannes convinces Nelly to pretend to be who she actually is to claim it. He trains her to be Nelly again, dressing her in the right clothes, working on her handwriting, and coordinating “Nelly’s return” to civilization. She goes along with it, frightened to reveal the truth, and hopeful that this will allow her some semblance of the life she once she had, even as she refuses to believe that it is her husband’s betrayal that destroyed her in the first place.

The plot of “Phoenix” is its first masterstroke: a brilliant encapsulation of how people cope (or refuse to cope) with tragedy, especially when it’s at least partially of their own making. Nelly is a ghost, a physical representation of horror. Hoss does a complete 180 from the confident characters she’s played in the past, portraying Nelly’s wide-eyed fear at losing everything that she holds dear to her identity—her husband, her life, her very face. Like so many people after World War II, she is a survivor who doesn’t know how to move on from what she’s lost forever. It is Nelly and Johnny’s denial that makes their relationship so riveting. He refuses to realize this woman is the person he betrayed while she refuses to realize she can never really go back again.

Petzold’s visualization of this emotionally daring story is so finely tuned and executed that it can be taken for granted. Look at the art direction in the rubble-strewn streets of Berlin. Watch the physicality of Johnny and Nelly change as they work on their plan together in his shabby apartment. The blocking, the tight quarters, the sense of espionage almost give the film the air of noir. It feels like a Hitchcock work at times in its interplay of shadow and light, which Petzold uses thematically as well. Nelly is slumped, and regularly in shadows early in the film, and is seen more completely as her character climbs out of its darkness.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, Hoss is mesmerizing here in every single beat. It’s a performance from which you can’t turn away. Watch Nelly shrivel in the first-act suggestions that she get a new face or simply move away from Berlin. If she’s not “Nelly Lenz of Berlin,” who is she? Hoss sells the need we all have for identity, for place, for home, with palpable intensity. And watch the way she slowly unfolds as Johnny transforms her, becoming both more confident and more aware of the horror of her situation as she rises like the titular creature of the film. The final scene, without spoiling anything, is a movie moment for the ages. In a film festival of five-to-six movie days, it’s hard sometimes to remember key moments. I will never forget the end of “Phoenix.” Ever. Here’s hoping this incredible film gets to an audience so it can sear itself into your memory as well.

The Tribe (Plemya) (2014) Film. Director : Miroslav Slaboshpitsky


BY • NOVEMBER 13, 2014 • AFI FEST 2014

As many of you know, my biggest cinematic pet peeve is that a lot of American filmmakers ignore the rule of “show, don’t tell.” Leave it to the Russians to follow that rule to a T with their intense drama, THE TRIBE. With only sign language – no spoken dialogue or subtitles – and a cast of non-professional actors, director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s experimental Ukrainian drama is shocking, provocative, envelope-pushing, unflinching and wildly daring.

The Tribe, extraitMild-mannered deaf-mute teen Sergey (Grigory Fesenko) is a new student at a boarding school for deaf students, and he’s not off to a very good start. Not only is he late on his first day of class, which earns him the ire of his principal, he also gets in a fight with the school’s blonde bully (the Ukrainian William Zabka), who runs with a gang of suits (business and jogging) into bribery, prostitution and robbery. However, just when it looks like Sergey will be spending the rest of the year eating lunch with the special needs kid (who’s also quite cruel to him), one of the suits (Alexander Dsiadevich) introduces him their leader (Ivan Tishko). As Sergey begins assimilating into the tribe’s violent ways, he falls for their leader’s girlfriend, who’s also a prostitute (Yana Novikova). Things grow more complicated and complex from there.

I wish I had seen this with someone who knew Ukrainian sign language (that’s next level translation for all of you playing at home), as it would open up a whole new conversation. THE TRIBE is intense and violent at times. It’s probably deliciously sick of me to say, but it almost works best when it’s at its most shocking. Maybe it’s the way the writer-director builds to that point of explosion. The combination of his camera technique (which primarily utilizes establishing and medium shots to let the actors have room for their expressive gestures), foreboding atmosphere, and the narrative climax work in tandem to create brilliance. Slaboshpytskiy, along with his DP Valentyn Vasanovych, utilize an intense black and blue color palette echoing the film’s bruising nature.

THE TRIBE 2The abortion scene, while gratuitous, is unflinching. It doubles down on anything the Romanian film 4 MONTHS 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS showed us – and in far less time. Themes are illustrated brilliantly: Setting the film at a decaying dorm reflects how morals and values can rot when left unattended. As shown through the school’s cliques vs. outsiders dynamic, the hive mind can be a far more powerful force than independent thought. Plus we see how Frankenstein-like monsters can eclipse their creators’ intentions in the most unsettling of manners. Best of all, it doesn’t shy away from showcasing consequences.

That said, the film unfortunately suffers from a few lulls in energy. From the visit to the immigration office, to filling out paperwork for passports, to the scene where a sex-crazed Sergey monstrously ransacks his shop teacher’s living quarters looking for money, several scenes are a little too long in the tooth. They put the brakes on the narrative’s forward momentum. Nevertheless, the film haunts viewers far after the film ends. It shines a spotlight on a harsh, cruel brutality some may find hard to tolerate.

Beautiful Youth (Hermosa juventud) (2014) Film. Director: Jaime Rosales


Sunday 18 May 2014

Jaime Rosales has long been one of Europe’s most serious, valuable and innovative film-makers. Now he returns to Cannes with another deeply felt and deeply considered drama in a compassionate, realist style.

It is a film about the silent anguish of Spain’s young people, a generation junked by the economic slump. Rosales traces the tragedy and the scandal of their energy and idealism going to waste. He also boldly mixes conventional film with footage caught on smartphones and gaming consoles to show how lives are being lived on social media – and to show twentysomethings’ digital existence. These are brilliant, challenging sequences and in fact his whole film is an audacious leap into real lives and real experiences: it is a seizing of normality. Beautiful Youth isn’t perfect, and I’m not sure about its final moments – but Rosales’s sheer intelligence is bracing.

At the film’s centre is the relationship of Natalia (Ingrid García Johnson) and Carlos (Carlos Rodriguez). Both live with their respective mothers – the fathers being no longer on the scene. There is no work for them, no matter how many CVs they send out – and they are depressed and infuriated by low-paying casual work. This good-looking couple even do a porn film, which pays well but not enough to solve their problems – unless they want to make a career of it.

When Natalia becomes pregnant, their problems escalate to a crisis level. Carlos gambles on a hoped-for compensation payout after he gets mugged; Natalia struggles with the beginnings of depression dealing with a baby that cries all night. There is something very moving in her confession to her mother Dolores (Inma Nieto) that she loves her baby daughter more than anything and also “hates her with all her heart”. Meanwhile, Natalia’s stroppy, unhappy younger brother Pedro (Juanma Calderón) isn’t doing his chores or his homework and both Natalia and Dolores find they don’t have the arguments to persuade him to knuckle down. Work hard, or slack off – who cares when unemployment is the only thing waiting for you?

And all the time, there is suppressed panic. What if things never get better? Or get better too late, when it is too late for them to enjoy their young lives? Many have parents who are unemployed too, fiftysomethings who might under other circumstances look forward to years of rewarding work.

Eventually, Natalia considers leaving to find work in Germany – a plan which brings new heartache. Will Spain’s young people be Generation Skype – reduced to talking to their parents and children on their laptops? Beautiful Youth is a powerful and heartfelt film.

Cannes Review: Beautiful Youth

The worrying lengths that some young people will go to earn quick and easy cash is investigated with bitter precision in the Spanish drama Beautiful Youth.

Good looking couple Natalia and Carlos are young and in love but lacking in employment prospects and money in modern Spain. Desperate to simply earn a bit of decent currency, the lovers decide to engage in an amateur porn film for the sum of €600. When Natalia falls pregnant, life is about to become even more difficult for the pair as they struggle to provide for their baby while continuing their respective searches for work.

In a world where opportunity is scarce, Natalia and Carlos have low ambitions and a simple desire to scrape a half decent living. The added stress of being parents provides further challenges as both have to live separately with their own mothers and neither can find work that pays as well as their brief stint as amateur porn performers. The trials of being parents begin to form cracks in what was previously a relationship enlivened by the purity of young love.

Shot through with an ugly, grainy realist aesthetic, Beautiful Youth is anything but a beautiful film. While its young stars are aesthetically very easy on the eyes, the locations and the situations are far from pretty. Realism seeps from the screen, aided by a wholly convincing script that details every minor triumph but mostly the difficulties of contemporary youth in Spain. Director Jaime Rosales’ camera peeks around corners and peers at his subjects, giving a strong sense of eavesdropping on the couple’s conversations. While the couple are filmed for their porn audition, the camera captures their every awkward response to highly personal questions and is candid when showing them engaging in intercourse.

But Beautiful Youth is far from being all about the current state of the online sex industry. It is a slow burn character study and in depth examination of the challenges of parenthood. Ingrid Garcia-Jonsson and Carlos Rodriguez convince as the almost carefree lovers whose lives get far more complicated after having a baby. The passing of time is niftily dealt with through having the contents of their phone screens fill the cinema screen. Scrolling through the messages, pictures and videos that are captured on their phones gives a sense of seeing a visual diary of the pair as Natalia goes through pregnancy and Carlos recovers from a unexpected injury. Rosales chooses to use no music throughout the film, and while it often goes unmissed, the moments where we skip through the couple’s phone pictures are strangely silent.

Perhaps director Rosales is commenting on our increasingly mediated world by having large amounts of time taking place only as messages and phone captured pictures. Carlos and Natalia’s decision to experiment in porn comes completely out of the blue and as it is only really one single humorous scene, it sits uneasily with the rest of the film. Though this could be a part of Rosales’ plan to draw comparisons between displaying oneself on social media and going the whole hog and having sex on camera, the tone of their porn audition is at odds with the remaining scenes, particularly the depressing final shot of the film.

There are some wonderfully scripted moments, particularly between Natalia and her mother but overall, Beautiful Youth offers little in the way of insight or originality. Its characters are flawed and perfectly believable with the script and camerawork helping to craft them into completely convincing human beings. However, it is a film that seems to want to say something about the modern online sex industry without giving this concern anywhere near enough attention.

Despite strong performances and a cold, hard wakeup call of an ending, Beautiful Youth sadly meanders and never quite manages to have the impact that it should have.

White God (Fehér isten) (2014) Film. Director: Kornél Mundruczó


Monday 19 May 2014 

Kornél Mundruczó’s bizarre new film at Cannes is dedicated to the late Miklós Jancsó. Jancsó might well have enjoyed this startling and elusive parable. He surely would have savoured its uniqueness.

What kind of a film is this? It is a fantasia of canine madness that looks sometimes like a horror-thriller based on something by James Herbert or Stephen King – and sometimes like a tribute to Hitchcock’s The Birds. Except that this time it’s TheDogs.

It could be that Mundruczó has taken profoundly to heart Morrissey’s maxim that Meat is Murder, and wished to put it at the centre of his film. There are other moments when it looks like a blend of Gladiator and Spartacus only with dogs instead of humans. I could even occasionally see hints of innocent takes like The Incredible Journey and Hue and Cry.

The movie begins with an extraordinary sequence of a young girl on a bike being chased through Budapest’s deserted streets by a pack of feral dogs. The audience might well ask themselves if this intensely disturbing spectacle is a dream – and if the director has achieved it digitally, or with real dogs?

We are at any rate then introduced to a rather more normal situation. Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is upset by the tense relations between her separated parents; when her mother has to go away to Australia for three months on business, Lili has to stay with her grumpy dad who works in a gruesome meat-processing plant, where standards of hygiene may conceivably hold the key to what follows.

The most objectionable thing about Lili’s dad is that he hates her dog, a Labrador crossbreed called Hagen. Poor Hagen gets chucked out of the flat and is found on the street by some lowlife and trained up to be a fighting dog. All his gentle instincts drummed out of him.

But Hagen’s scary aggressive new persona seems to be shared by all the dogs in the police pound – and maybe all the dogs in the city. Soon they are staging a mass canine uprising, which is all the more scary because it is not part of a conventional horror film. Hagen’s angry face – snarling with teeth which have been filed back by his “fight” trainer – really is very intimidating.

Who are these dogs, and what do they want? What is their beef? Have they been eating the wrong kind of beef? Or wait – is it us, the swaggering humans, who have been eating the wrong kind? White God works as an ambiguous satire of power relations generally: eventually the lower orders will rise up. The film has a flair and a bite which I have found lacking in Mundruczó’s earlier films. It is a distant cousin to Planet of the Apes: all ruined Budapest needed was a big Statue of Liberty sticking up out of the asphalt.