I’m glad I saw this on the big screen at Vue West End (but disappointed to miss the live appearance of the Nina Hoss). Put simply this is a great melodrama by Christian Petzold with a setting associated with the Trümmerfilme or ‘rubble film’. It includes elements from Fassbinder’s ‘BRD trilogy’ including the image of Hanna Schygulla as the Maria Braun character from The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) stepping through the rubble and the nightclub at the heart of Lola (1981).
It is a few months after the end of the war in 1945 and two women drive into Switzerland. One is swathed in bandages and is being transported by her friend Lene. Beneath the bandages is Nelly, whose face has been disfigured during her escape from Auschwitz. She is about to visit a plastic surgeon and get a new face. Lene searches in the archives for a new Jewish identity for Nelly who was a famous popular singer before the war. Lene’s plan is that the pair of them should go to Palestine where Lene has already rented a flat in Haifa. But Nelly has other ideas – one of which involves finding her husband Johnny back in Berlin. This is where the bar, the Phoenix comes in. I won’t spoil the plot except to say that Johnny reappears in the guise of Ronald Zehrfeld (previously paired with Nina Hoss in Petzold’s Barbara (2012)). What follows has been likened to Hitchcock or film noir. There is a suggestion that Petzold didn’t know how to end the film, but I thought it was a perfect ending and as Howard Schumann suggests in his IMDB posting, it creates a moment so resonant that it could become one of the great final scenes in cinema.
The script is based on a novel by the French crime writer Hubert Monteilhet which was first adapted for the screen for a British film directed by J. Lee Thompson with Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow and Samantha Eggar in 1965 under the novel’s title Return From the Ashes (Le retour des cendres). This film (which I now want to see – I don’t remember it coming out – is only available on a Region 1 ‘print on demand’ DVD from MGM Archives). Petzold, working on a new adaptation with the late Harun Farocki, changed the location from Paris to Berlin and some of the other story elements – shifting the genre from crime melodrama to something more metaphorical concerned with identity and fidelity.
I’m a little frustrated that I can’t find a Press Pack for the film so I’m forced to look for interviews with Petzold to explore some of his ideas. The film was first seen at Toronto and has since then provoked a great deal of discussion – much of it querying why it was turned down by Cannes and Venice. I haven’t seen Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep yet but if it’s better than Phoenix it must be quite something. I’d like to explore aspects of the film in detail but I’d need to se it again first and I don’t want to spoil the surprises. What I would say is that it looks stupendous shot on Super 35 film in CinemaScope and with rich reds standing out against the rubble. Nina Hoss gives a breathtaking performance. Nelly has to gradually recover her confidence and her sense of self – and then the plot requires Nelly to play another role.
As well as Hitchcock and Franju (Eyes Without a Face) some critics have also referenced Douglas Sirk’s 1958 Hollywood adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel ‘A Time to Live and a Time to Die’ set in the last few months of the war. Sirk changed the title to A Time to Love and a Time to Die. Apart from the setting in a bombed out Berlin suburb for part of the film, Remarque’s story is rather different, but Sirk produced one of the first films to try to deal with the emotional lives of individuals in the chaos of Germany’s defeat. This is certainly what powers Phoenix. Nelly has to find an identity and a major part of her quest is to find out what happened to her husband. Did he betray her? Does he still love her? Does she love him? How will people live in the new Germany(s)? How will they deal with memories? The simplicity of Nelly’s final appearance is a response to these layered questions.
Soda Pictures have Phoenix for the UK and Sundance Selects for the US, Films We Like for Canada and Madman for Australia/New Zealand. In fact most territories are taking the film. Keep your eyes peeled – don’t miss it!
SPOILERS!! This trailer gives away a crucial plot development:
This was another LFF film that I admired more than enjoyed. Writer-director Syllas Tzoumerkas was in attendance and he is as dynamic and aggressive as his film. (There is also a co-writer Youla Boudali working on her second film with Tzoumerkas.) Given the terrible state of his country’s economy and the effects of the crash on all Greeks he has every right to be so and to deliver a film that lives up to its title.
The focus of the film is what the director described as a ‘lower middle-class’ family living somewhere on the coast. They own and run a grocery store and possibly own some land and another small property as well as living over the shop. The central character is Maria (Angeliki Papoulia) the dynamic member of the family. We see her as a young woman eager to go to university and then later as a mother of three small children and married to a handsome ship’s captain, Yannis. The narrative constantly shifts between flashbacks and the present until the last section which becomes a form of chase/escape. This structure is deliberate in trying to convey the social turmoil of the country. Maria and Yannis have a tempestuous relationship which is matched by the problems in her family. Mother runs the shop from her wheelchair and father seems ineffective. Maria’s sister Gogo has learning difficulties and her parents are relieved to marry her to Costas who works in the local waste disposal depot. This marriage also has problems as Costas is an abusive husband.
I think the film is distinctive in a number of ways. Maria is certainly a compelling character. Here is an intelligent attractive woman who has a passionate relationship with her husband and for whom separation is difficult. There is a great deal of overt sexual activity of all kinds in the film but arguably the most arresting sequence is when Maria, at a very low ebb and with Yannis at sea, goes into a computer room in some form of community centre and begins to search porn sites. I didn’t quite understand the scene but she seems to be searching for a specific category of hard porn – something she did with Yannis? The men at the other terminals all turn to stare at her as she watches the screen intently. Maria can also be extremely violent, both verbally and physically. As a representation of an intelligent woman put under enormous pressure this could be a very interesting case study for film and media students. Yannis is beautiful and seemingly calm. The press notes and interviews suggest that Yannis is rather an exotic creature for Maria’s family – more middle class perhaps? He has surprising liaisons during his trips away but still seems to be in love with Maria.
Apart from Maria as a character, the film is also distinctive in its layering of the complexity of the consequences of the economic crash. Businesses go under, families break up, criminal activity expands, government agencies can’t cope, ecological damage and destruction increases – the plot includes elements of all of these and presents them in a broken narrative in which the incoherence eventually leads to the final chase. Maria is determined to throw away whatever she has as a scream of anguish about the state of her life and the situation she finds herself in. The visual style of the film matches the urgency of the narrative with hand-held camerawork, swift tracking shots and a suitably raucous soundtrack (see the trailer below).
The film reminded me a little of other recent Greek films such as Dogtooth (2009), not so much in style or content but in its ‘edginess’ and confrontation. I haven’t seen any evidence of distribution deals for the UK/US but I think the film needs to be widely seen. (Although I suggest a tweak of the title. I take ‘a blast’ to be a description of a great experience – “We had a blast” – I don’t think that is the intended meaning here.) One review makes the point that this ‘blast’ is refreshingly different from the social realist drama the subject matter suggests.
Google translates the Italian title of this film as ‘Our Boys’ – which is confusing because it appears to refer to the original novel by the Dutch writer Herman Koch. For this Italian adaptation writer-director Ivano de Matteo and his co-writer Valentina Ferlan have changed aspects of the novel’s narrative including two of the central characters, making them a boy and girl rather than two boys. The various changes (there are more) are intended to make the moral question at the heart of the narrative even more compelling.
The ‘dinner’ is a regular event in which a wealthy lawyer and his second wife entertain the lawyer’s brother, a paediatrician, and his gallery ‘explainer’ wife. It is always the same expensive restaurant and the relationship between the brothers is testy at best. The doctor is critical of his brother who he thinks has too much money and has married a ‘bimbo’. This latter is rather unfair and the film is suffused with a sense of a critique about the haute bourgouisie in Rome. The central part of the narrative refers to a dangerous and reprehensible action involving the lawyer’s daughter and the doctor’s son who are on their way home from a party. I won’t spoil what they did. The fallout is that the two sets of parents have to decide what to do and in what follows most audiences are going to be surprised by the actions that the parents take – which is unexpected, not just in terms of what they do but also in terms of who does what. The denouement takes place at the next dinner when the two couples are together again. The actions they take are also compared to an incident which takes place at the start of the film. This sees a case of road rage in which an off-duty policeman pulls a gun when he is threatened with a jack and shoots the assailant dead, also wounding the man’s son. The lawyer brother then defends the policeman and the doctor looks after the injured child.
You probably get the impression that this is a contrived narrative and that is precisely right according to the director who answered questions in the Q & A alongside Jacopo Olmo Antinori, the young actor playing the lawyer’s son (who also played a disaffected teenager in Bertolucci’s Me and You which I saw at the Bradford Film Festival in 2013). One member of the audience said that he was profoundly shocked by the ending of the film. I’m not so sure. I certainly noticed the ending but I’d got a little irritable by then because the interplay between the brothers did indeed seem contrived – loaded one way so that it could be flipped. Ivano de Matteo was an engaging aggressive character in the Q & A and he is clearly a talented director. The film won the prize for ‘Best European Feature’ awarded by the Europa Cinemas Network after its Venice festival screening which means it will get support for distribution in Europe. It has also been acquired for North America. A Dutch adaptation has already been released and a Cate Blanchett adaptation is also expected.
I thought the film was well made and the performances were good. It is an interesting moral dilemma but I did feel I was being manipulated. That may not be a bad thing if my liberal views are being challenged, but I didn’t enjoy the film so much because of the approach the director takes. I’m grateful to the ‘Den of Geek’ review of the film which points out that What Richard Did and We Need to Talk About Kevin cover much of the same ground much more cogently and more effectively.
The highlight of BIFF 2014 for me was the retrospective of films directed by Nomura Yoshitaro. Five films, all adapted from published stories by the celebrated crime fiction writer Matsumoto Seicho, were screened ranging from Stakeout (Japan 1958) to The Demon (1978). Festival director Tom Vincent worked with Nomura’s studio Shochiku and its international representative Chiaki Omori to bring prints to the UK with the assistance of the Japan Foundation, Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation and the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation. The five prints will also be screened in London at the ICA from 18 April.
I’ve blogged on each of the five films on our sister blog: http://globalfilmstudies.com/tag/nomura-yoshitaro/