(We first reported on Phoenix at the London Film Festival, where it was our ‘best of show’. Keith now offers a view on the UK release of the film on May 8th.)
This was a preview screening for Members and Guardian readers at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum. There were about sixty people in the audience: most of whom seemed very appreciative. I would have expected more, even on a Sunday morning, as the director Christian Petzold and the star Nina Hoss have already collaborated very successfully in Yella (2007) and Barbara (2012).
The film is set in Berlin immediately following the end of World War II. Berlin is still an occupied city and the survivors, ordinary Germans and ex-camp inmates, return to find their old life or try to find a new life. A woman confronting a new situation or a new life was the central theme of both of Petzold’s earlier films and it is once again here. Nelly (Nina Hoss) is still recovering from trauma and from injury, assisted by Lena (Nina Kunzendorf) who is involved in assisting Jewish victims and who is involved the Zionist movement: she also is probably in love with Nelly. On the road to recovery Nelly seeks out her friends and family from the past, including Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld).
The film vividly recreates the Berlin of the period and also takes in the wartime and the pre-war world. This still haunts the protagonists. Nelly was a singer before the war and the film makes good use of the songs of Kurt Weill. The film’s title is taken from the name of a night-club that figures in the story.
Petzold’s film combine genre plots with art film sensibilities. So at one level the film works rather like a thriller, with the audience likely trying to foresee the developing permutations. But at a more subtle level it works as a study of character, ably presented by the fine performances of the lead actors, especially Hoss and Zehrfeld. And Petzold and his production team bring their usual excellent and finely judged mise en scène, camerawork, editing and sound to the film: this time in 2.39:1.
But Petzold’s films also work at a deeper metaphorical level, casting a critical eye on German societies and culture. Yella was set in the post-reunification Germany with some acid representations of that market economy. Barbara took the audience back to the divided German and the DDR, a noirish narrative that suited the depiction of that closed society. Now we have the world of the immediate post-war Germany, with the associated guilt, traumas and resentments of the characters. I wonder if Petzold, with Hoss, already has a plan for a film set during the Third Reich or even the earlier Weimar Republic. Like his other films this work also references the earlier cinemas of Germany.
The film has a general release from 8th May. It is definitely worth seeking out and most enterprising Independent cinemas will presumably screen it. Stay right to the end, the climax and resolution of this film is the most compelling I have yet seen in 2015.
There are not that many screenings of German films these days, so this title in the Leeds Young Film Festival looked promising. It amply repaid the time at the Picture House. The Festival Brochure recommends:
See this if you liked: Heathers, Girl Interrupted, Juno.
In fact the last title is nearest in tone: a fresh and engaging look at a moment (a sort of rite de passage) when a teenage girl finds herself re-examining life, family, relationships and the larger meanings. In some ways the film seems blackly comic, as one of its main themes is ‘death’. However, this is contrasted with ‘life’ and the drama is not only affirming but is more questioning than sardonic.
The protagonist is fifteen and three quarter years Charleen (Jasna Fritzi Bauer). She lives with her mother Sabine, (Heike Makatsch, her nickname from her own teens is Bini); her younger brother and internet savvy Oscar; her granny Emmi (Dorothea Walda, much sharper that she first appears; and Sabine’s boyfriend Volker (Simon Schwarz, sometimes called Holger). In the course of the film we also find out about her father (not around). We meet her school friend Isa (Amelie Plaas-Link). And several schoolboys including Linus (Sandro Lohmann). Apart from being bright at maths he appears to also be an amateur taxidermist.
The Festival Brochure reveals that:
One day she (Charleen) decides to commit suicide. Waking up in hospital after her failed attempt, both her, her family and her friends are forced to reassess their lives and relationships.
This takes up the rest of the narrative. In the course of this we meet an unconventional psychologist Dr. Frei (Nikolaus Frei). We visit a funeral parlour, Charleen’s school, and a cemetery. We also meet Dr. Frei’s talking Budgie and Linus’ pet hamster Archie. We listen in on school sex lessons and watch the dynamics of teenagers in this environment; including their tendency to cruelty.
All this is treated with a relatively light touch. The film does become more serious in the last 40 minutes or so, but even here the plot allows the odd moment of wit or whimsy. One sequence I enjoyed was a near accident as the driver took her eyes off the road: the wandering eyes of drivers always worry me in films. A subjective viewpoint is also introduced with Charleen’s momentary imaginings about friends and people she meets. Several of these have real panache.
One of the virtues of the film is the style. It is more naturalistic than realist. But the techniques used, which include a couple of overhead shots and a crane, a slight slow motion effect and a series of freeze frames, is always completely apt. I was especially pleased that the Steadicam shots did not attempt to emulate a handheld camera.
My sense of teenage years is now all down to memories: but I found the confusions and angst depicted completely convincing. The film does attempt to include possibly too many issues: we have a gay relationship. But even here it fits. The final resolution of the relationships is slightly pat, but seems to work.
It looks like the film does not have a UK distributor as it does not have a BBFC Certificate: the Brochure recommends 15. It is to be hoped that some bright company picks it up. It is a rewarding 104 minutes and with the right publicity should surely win an audience. The film is in colour, 2.39:1 and has English subtitles. Well spotted by the Festival programmers.
Director and Writers: Mark Monheim. Music by Sebastian Pille; Cinematography by Daniel Schönauer; Film Editing by Stine Sonne Munch; Casting by Stefany Pohlmann; Production Design by Cinzia Fossati, Christina Heidelmeier; Costume Design by Carola Raum. The film is in German with English subtitles: oddly, I could not find a German title for the film.
Alongside a number of silents the Festival features two early examples of working with the ‘sound on film’ technology which arrived in the late 1920s. There were various systems in Europe and North America, but they were all fairly primitive. Cutting or overlaying sound in the manner that filmmakers used celluloid was not developed until the 1930s. Two avoid extraneous sound on the tracks film cameras were enclosed in padded booths, which limited camera movement. This was at a time when filmmakers had just developed the technology of the moving or ‘unchained’ camera. However, talented directors and their production crews quickly developed methods to use sound in an innovative and entertaining/dramatic fashion.
First we have The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel, 1920) filmed at the great UFA studios near Berlin. It was directed by Josef von Sternberg, a rather maverick filmmaker who had already established a career in Hollywood. His 1927 Underworld was a pioneer film in the gangster genre. Von Sternberg was born in Vienna but raised in the USA. He returned to Europe at the invitation of Eric Pommer, the great German producer. The film is famous partly because of its casting. It is the first sound film of Emil Jennings. Even more notable it introduced Marlene Dietrich to von Sternberg and the international public. Whilst Dietrich had already made a number of silent films in Germany, von Sternberg bought a new sensuous and dangerous side to the Dietrich persona. Later von Sternberg took Dietrich back to Hollywood where they made a series of provocative and sensuously inspired films. Sternberg’s career declined in the late 1930s but Dietrich became one of the great icons of Hollywood cinema.
Part of the film’s quality is due to the skills of the German film technicians at the UFA Studio. The Cinematography is by Günther Rittau and Hans Schneeberger: the Editing is by Sam Winston: the Sound Effects by Fritz Thiery: and Production Design by Otto Hunte and Emil Hasler. All of these craft people can be found on the credits of other German films of the period. The UFA studio was the centre of excellence during the 1920s and filmmakers from elsewhere in Europe were eager to work there – Alfred Hitchcock would be a prime example.
The film is adapted from a novel by Heinrich Mann, though the story is fairly truncated, removing the political critique found in the book. Instead Sternberg, who authored much of the script, produced a story of infatuation and its consequences. Dietrich plays Lola, a night club entertainer, Jannings a professor at a local institute.
John Baxter writes of Dietrich’s Lola, “Her feline stroll on stage, her pointed mocking stares, her casual use of her own sexual allure to beguile the giggling, simpering Jannings became elements in a screen persona Dietrich was too exploit for the rest of her career.”
Sternberg, a director noted for his use of mise en scène and chiaroscuro, “plastered then [the sets] with scores of posters, hung the café with nets, dangling cardboard angels … and everywhere, low hung lamps that give the whole film an air of scented, smoky claustrophobia.” The combination was an instant success. Sternberg and Dietrich returned in triumph to Hollywood and the film has become a classic of the period
The second feature was also made in Germany and in the UFA studio in the same period. This is Fritz Lang’s classic M, with an outstanding performance by Peter Lorre in the title role. The film has been transferred onto a DCP using a restoration made by the Deutsche Film Museum and other archives in 2003. The film was banned by the Nazi Party in 1934. It resurfaced in the 1960s but with numerous cuts amounting to over ten minutes of film. In addition the aspect ratio had been changed, leading to the cropping of character’s heads and other such anomalies. And the film’s soundtrack, famous for the effective and eerie use of silence, had been filled with rather tinny accompanying music. The restoration has recreated the film almost entirely as it was when released in 1931.
There is the memorable soundtrack that offers innovation in the new technology of sound on film. There is also impressive use of chiaroscuro, the moving or ‘unchained camera’, and studio built settings. All of these were skills that had placed German cinema in the forefront of European film in the 1920s. The production team included Fritz Arno Wagner on Cinematography, Production Designers Emil Hasler and Karl Volbrecht, Editing by Paul Falkenberg, and on the relatively new sound technology Adolf Jansen. The only music in the film is diegetic [within the story], famously using a passage from Edward Grieg’s ‘Peer Gynt’. Lang was noted for the use of architectural design in his films. And he places motifs, both visual and aural, that bind together the drama and point up aspects as it develops.
His previous silent films, scripted together with his wife Thea von Harbou, had been both popular and critically acclaimed. Lang also had a penchant for stories taken from real life including newspapers. This film follows the hunt for a serial killer (M), a topic that paralleled the trial of a real-life child murderer in Düsseldorf. However, Lang was also interested in moral judgements, so the film follows a hunt, not just by the police, but also by the criminal underworld, whose work has been disrupted by the search.
The film culminates in a trial scene, and one of the most memorable performances on screen as Lorre’s emotional responses question the judgement that can or should be made. The moral portrait of the film can also be seen as a critical view of the wider society. Some critics see it as a coded warning against the Nazi Party, who assumed power in 1933. This caused both Lang and Lorre to leave Germany, both ending up working in Hollywood. At another level some critics see the film as anti-death penalty, others as a justification for mob justice. The latter seems most unlikely; Lang’s earliest US film was a savage indictment of lynching, Fury (1937). In fact, like the best of Lang’s work, the film presents the characters and drama ambiguously, placing the audience in the position of evaluating and possibly judging.
Despite the travails of the film prints this drama has been enormously influential. One can see the influence in the work of Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s: on much of the Hollywood film noir canon, and still in a number of the contemporary serial killer films. This is one film that is undoubtedly worthy of the cachet classic.
Note, the other good news is that Leeds Central Library have just acquired a copy of Tom Gunning’s excellent study, The Films of Fritz Lang, bfi publishing 2000.
I’m glad I saw this on the big screen at Vue West End (but disappointed to miss the live appearance of 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: