Phoenix

Phoenix

Postby CAP » Wed Dec 16, 2015 12:56 pm

This is a German movie from 2014 directed by Christian Petzold that everyone warned me off as ‘holocaust porn’ or ‘holocaust chic’ (or perhaps ‘chic holocaust porn’?) but I saw it anyway and it wasn’t that holocausty, but I struggled with the central credibility gap that the lead character, Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) comes back from Auschwitz so horribly disfigured in the face and re-constructed by a plastic surgeon that her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) doesn’t recognise her, although he does ask her to impersonate his ‘dead’ wife in order to claim her inheritance, following numerous family deaths in the war or camps. Huh? She doesn’t enlighten him and plays along until the last minute when she sings an old hit in what can only be her real voice and blows her husband away, in every sense. That scene is a killer but whether it makes the rest of the movie worthwhile is debateable.

There are other issues there but I mean, this is a big ask. Ultimately I couldn’t really go there so I only give it three.

It’s based on a book, Le Retour de cendres – ‘Return from the Ashe’s - by Hubert Monteilet, published in 1961 and set in post-war Paris which had already been adapted in a forgettable 60s Hollywood version. I haven’t read the book so there might be more to this central dilemma than is apparent in the latest version but the central proposition seems pure shaggy dog. I went to see it on the strength of the director’s reputation, although I struggle to remember what I’d seen of his before (possibly Barbara, 2012, which also stars Hoss). Anyway this is a small, spare tele-movie, in which everything hinges on the central performances. It could almost be a play. In the reviews critics note its ‘film noir’ look, low-key lighting and tense close-ups, seedy post-war Berlin nightclubs and debris-strewn streets and the intensely psychological focus – all true. It is pretty much The Third Man territory. But the story contains a number of indigestible gaps, beginning with the central character’s entry into Germany from Switzerland for some reason. She is supposed to be coming from Auschwitz. Then there is the crucial revelation that not only did her husband betray her to the Gestapo (although only after devising a successful hiding place for her) but that he then officially divorced her, which of course undercuts his attempts to claim a share of his wife’s inheritance. He would first have to re-marry ‘her’, surely? But the story never covers that.

But the real problem – I suppose the fascination for both movie makers – is how different would a woman have to look for her husband to not recognise her, and yet accept that there is enough of a likeness - an uncanny similarity in voice, handwriting, walk, demeanour etc – without entertaining the possibility that she is just a tragically disfigured version of his wife? The movie balances these things against the husband’s conviction that his wife is dead, but really we need to know just how different she does look from her pre-war self. There are obviously digital means to contrive some vaguely similar version of the actress from pre-war days, but frustratingly, the movie only allows the most fleeting of snapshots of her pre-war self, that tell us nothing. This seems a major failing, in that the audience are denied any fair comparison between her present and past appearance that might support her husband’s resistance to correctly identifying her; that might sustain the central conceit.

Why she doesn’t reveal herself to him is better explained, since her companion, Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf – a knockout performance, incidentally) tells her that ‘Johnny’ - or Johannes as he is now known (another telling switch of identity) - betrayed her to the Gestapo. She cannot really accept this and goes looking for him upon returning to Berlin. Complicating matters is the fact that Nelly is not actually Jewish, but that those jealous of her success as a cabaret singer accused her of concealing her faith and eventually the Gestapo came looking for her. That in itself might have provided grounds for Johnny’s divorce, but we don’t cover that angle either. Other members of her family are then caught up in the Gestapo witch hunt and perish and hence after the war she stands to inherit a substantial fortune from distant relatives who cared little for her while alive but leave no nearer next of kin. How Johnny can have tracked these developments without being aware of his ex-wife’s survival is a further credibility killer. We glimpse him rifling through files at some civil service office, as is Lene, a little more smoothly, but it is not clear what he knows or was looking for.

In the end his plans all look a bit desperate and unconvicing, as Nelly tries to point out to him, but really what she wants to hear is some admission of his betrayal or at least justification. We never get there either. The whole thing is just too confused, too fuzzy. Matters weren’t helped by casting Hoss who looks at least ten years older than Zehrfeld – admittedly life in Auschwitz will have been harrowing, but the disparity was just a little too great for me, even allowing for this. The script is by Petzold and the late Harun Farocki, a noted German political moviemaker and theorist and if there is any holocausty agenda presumably it is steered by Farocki and concerns the Zionist Lene, her plans to relocate herself and Nelly to Haifa (then still part of the British Protectorate of Palestine) and to quietly assume control of Nelly’s inheritance. That comes to nothing and Lene commits suicide, again a little too sketchily. We learn only that she could never quite get over her losses – the claims of the past – could never quite believe in a future. But it’s really her personal attachment to Nelly that we wonder about, and sadly there is scant room in the story to explain that a little more.

I couldn’t recommend the movie, but it is at least worth trying to analyse why.
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