Phoenix, Brad Prager, German Film Classics: Camden House 2019, ISBN 9781640140387, £12.99, 88pp, 40 colour illus
My first reaction on reading this title was to wonder if a film can become a ‘film classic’ after only five years. Not that this observation worried me much since there are at least three blog entries on the film on this blog. I reviewed the film when it appeared at the London Film Festival, and both Keith Withall and Rona Murray discussed the film on its release. There is little doubt that Christian Petzold is the most successful of the so-called ‘Berlin School’ of contemporary German filmmakers. It is his films that are selected for international festivals and which tend to receive releases in film markets around the world – something increasingly difficult for many European auteurs these days. Most of Petzold’s successful films have seen him working with Nina Hoss as his leading player and Phoenix is the film on which they last worked together.
It might be worth offering a brief note about Phoenix first as this guide sticks very close to the text and assumes familiarity with the film. Nina Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, who we first see with her head swathed in bandages being driven by her friend Lene through an American checkpoint on her way back to Berlin in September 1945. Later we will learn that Nelly was a well-known singer before the war, but her Jewish heritage meant she was taken to Auschwitz. Somehow she escaped, but was shot in the face. Lene is driving her to meet a plastic surgeon who will re-construct her face. Lene then hopes that Nelly will accompany her to Palestine. However, Nelly hopes to find her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) and when she is recovered she begins a search. ‘Phoenix’ is the name of a nightclub attracting Americans in Berlin. The film is loosely adapted from a novel by Hubert Monteilhet, Return to the Ashes (1961), which sets the narrative in France. J. Lee Thompson made an English language film adaptation in 1965 featuring Ingrid Thulin and Maximilian Schell.
Brad Prager is Professor of German and Film Studies at the University of Missouri and he opens his guide by reminding us that Petzold co-wrote Phoenix with his old friend and mentor Harun Farocki. It was Farocki who suggested that the opening shots of the film should recall Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film The Killers [from the Hemingway short story] in which two contract killers are in a car at night searching for a man. Prager refers to Petzold’s comment about Siodmak as a Jewish German migrant in Hollywood, having fled the Nazis in the early 1930s. Siodmak carried with him that sense of being a persecuted exile when he returned to Germany after the war and Petzold sees Nelly as experiencing the same kind of feeling. Siodmak was one of the German directors identified as developing Hollywood films noirs and Petzold has said that film noir was the genre he thought about most in his preparation. He suggests that just as Fassbinder went back to the films of Douglas Sirk when he made his melodramas such as Fear Eats the Soul (1974), he, Petzold needed to go back to the films noirs of the 1940s and to directors such as Siodmak.
Prager offers us a very close reading of the film which I certainly found illuminating, especially in terms of the connections he finds to wider examples of German culture and particularly German Jewish culture. This means he explores similar films made both about 1945 and made in the immediate few months after the war and tracks the links to Jewish figures such as Kurt Weil, whose song ‘Speak Low’ plays a significant role in the film. As well as Robert Siodmak, he also refers to his screenwriter brother Curt/Kurt and to the Central European Jewish actor Peter Lorre. Prager’s first task is to demonstrate to us that Nelly experiences a a strong sense of dislocation in these first few months of what is a period of ‘limbo’ for German identity. Germany at this point simply doesn’t exist – it is an occupied territory. Nelly wants to re-discover her own German identity and her husband will fail to recognise her even though her new face will not be that different – it is more that he is incapable of seeing her. I know something about this period in Berlin but I learned a great deal more from Prager’s analysis. The real question, however, is who is the target readership for this guide?
I suspect that the intended readership is German studies students taking a film option. There are several other study guide series which deal with a specific ‘National Cinema’ through individual texts on key films. Readers need a certain investment in that National Cinema to get the most from the guides. The downside is that such guides don’t always suit the more general Film Studies student. One missing element for me was a sense of the German cinema audience. Checking the Lumière Database for European films I discovered that Phoenix had a smaller audience overall than Barbara (2012), the previous film by Petzold featuring both Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld. Not only did Phoenix have little more than half the audience of the previous film (530,000 across Europe) but the biggest audience was in France. Barbara, set in East Germany in the 1980s, attracted 1.05 million admissions across Europe and did, just, attract a larger audience in Germany. Prager does perhaps suggest reasons why this might be the case, but I don’t think he addresses what it means for German Cinema. But that’s the only disappointment for me in the analysis. What is the book like as a study guide?
As our other reviewers have pointed out, these are quite attractive guides in terms of presentation, especially since they use digital screengrabs nicely presented in colour. The A5 size is fairly standard for these little guides. In this case the text is presented in an attractive font, but the pages have small margins and the text is fully justified. There are no line spaces between paragraphs and the entire guide is divided into just four sections, corresponding to the linear progress of the narrative of the film. Each section is separated by just a couple of line spaces (rather than a new page). The overall effect is of a solid block of 80 pages of text enlivened only by the illustrations (which thankfully are used relatively frequently). All of this does make the text feel less accessible than it should be. Worse, however, is that there is no index as such, but instead seven pages of endnotes in lieu and a page of credits. The guide is printed on good quality paper, but these seeming cost-saving features rather undercut the overall quality appeal.
Brad Prager is an expert guide having written widely on German cinema and on that basis I would recommend this guide, but I hope Camden House re-consider their design for the series.
All three of us currently contributing to this blog have written about Ingmar Bergman’s films. I think Keith would be happy to accept the position of fan. But I and possibly Nick are more wary. I admire the skills of his filmmaking and I like some of the early films, but I struggle to enjoy the later films I’ve seen. Margarethe von Trotta, however, is a filmmaker I certainly admire and I’ve found all her films interesting. This is her documentary and therefore I approached it with some trepidation, knowing that she was a Bergman fan too.
The film opens with von Trotta on the beach where Bergman shot The Seventh Seal (1957) as she takes us through her first experience of watching his films and then moves to Paris as she tells us how in 1960 she intended to study at the Sorbonne. She then admits that, after meeting some young French cinéphiles, she spent much of her time in cinemas catching up on la nouvelle vague and, through the young directors like Truffaut, discovering Bergman. We realise that this will be a ‘personal journey’ type of documentary and what follows sees the German director discussing Bergman with other directors, several of his female actors and then several members of his family as she visits Bergman’s home on Fårö, the small island in the Baltic where he spent most of his later life. As several reviewers have pointed out, this is a performative documentary – Margarethe von Trotta appears in the film herself and we see her interacting with her interviewees. What could have been a dull series of talking heads interspersed with clips from the films becomes something more personal and engaging. It’s good to see von Trotta talking with, for instance, Liv Ullman. Here are two successful female filmmakers, both of whom have been actors as well as directors, talking about a man who seemed to have the ability to find strong, beautiful and intelligent women (and skilled actors) to be the leads in his films – something eloquently confirmed by the Spanish director Carlos Saura. Bergman was also a man who married five times and seemingly left his wives after they gave birth, unable to engage in any way with his young children.
We do meet Daniel Bergman, one of Bergman’s sons who had a difficult time in later life working with his father on Sunday’s Children (1992), a film written by Ingmar and directed by Daniel and drawing on memories of Ingmar’s father, the cleric Erik Bergman. Von Trotta also shows us a photograph of the whole Bergman clan, over three generations, taken when they travelled to Fårö. On this occasion several of the eight Bergman children met each other for the first time. The documentary does also begin to explore Ingmar’s deep psychological problems with his father and his own need to endlessly explore his childhood rather than engage with his children. This is just one example of how the documentary doesn’t ignore Bergman’s darker side but this isn’t enough to appease some of the film’s reviewers and several see von Trotta as creating a hagiography. She is a fan and she shows us Bergman’s list of films he selected for a publication related to the 1994 Göteborg Film Festival. It reveals that von Trotta’s own film The German Sisters (1981) is the only film in the list directed by a woman and the only one by a filmmaker who is still alive.
I’m not sure that it is fair to describe the film as a ‘hagiography’. Von Trotta does interview two of Bergman’s prominent contemporary disciples in the shape of the French directors Olivier Assayas and Mia Hansen-Løve. The latter made a visit to Fårö to make a (fiction) film which appears to be still to be released. However, another director of a ‘post-Bergman generation’, Ruben Östlund, points to the split in Swedish film culture that came about in the 1960s. Östlund explains that he was trained at the Göteborg film school where there has been more of an influence of the younger directors from the 1960s, led by Bo Widerberg, whereas in Stockholm there is still the sense that Bergman is the important figure. This view, which I confess I have long held, preferring Widerberg to Bergman, is confirmed by the writer, director and critic Stig Björkman who explains that in the 1960s Bergman began to feel threatened by the rise of a new generation. To be fair to Bergman though, he did include one of Widerberg’s films in that 1994 list.
I think Margarethe von Trotta could have delved a little deeper into some of Bergman’s darker places and it’s unfortunate that she doesn’t/couldn’t interview some of Bergman’s male actors. Many of them are no longer with us. Perhaps my major disappointment with the film is that it fails to fulfil the blurb in the sense that although Margarethe von Trotta does probe a little about Bergman’s childhood, she doesn’t attempt to say anything about Bergman’s early work. He had made 16 feature films between 1946 and 1956 when he started on The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. Apart from Summer with Monika (1953), which was a big influence on Truffaut and Godard, there is no mention of the early career in film – or theatre. It is the early films that I have enjoyed most. There is a clue as to why the early films are excluded. What does emerge from the documentary is that above all, Bergman saw himself as a writer. In those early films he was often constrained by working on somebody else’s original material. Von Trotta’s film does feel like a gathering of auteurs. It is an entertaining gathering and I was most impressed by the directors fluency in discussing the life and work of Bergman in French, German and English and at least I now know how to pronounce properly a range of names and titles in German and Swedish. In summary, this is a film that will interest Bergman’s fans and anyone interested in the history of European cinephilia. But if you don’t know Bergman that well it might not be the best place to start? On the other hand, it is a well-made documentary and Margarethe von Trotta is an engaging guide.
Directed and co-written (with Grit Kienzlen) by Ali Soozandeh, this is a startling representation of Tehran from the perspective of a prostitute. Startling because it is impossible for films made in Iran to show such things; Soozandeh emigrated to Germany over 20 years ago. By the 1990s the ‘new wave’ of Iranian films from directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, the Makhmalbaf family and Jafar Panahi was beginning to be ‘validated’ by western criticism. Even in these films censorship meant that it was impossible to represent the earthier side of human life, if the directors had wished to do so directly. So the films are a bit like mid-20th century British cinema, exemplified by Brief Encounter(1945), where the only stiff things in the narrative are lips. Hence seeing Tehran Taboo is something of a shock especially as the first scene shows a prostitute attempting to give a blow-job in the front seat of a car whilst her five-year-old son is sitting in the back.
The woman, Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh), is the character around which three narratives are woven: her attempts to look after her boy; a neighbour’s wife stifled by Islamic orthodoxy; a young would-be musician being conned into providing proof of virginity after a one-night stand. If the narrative around Pari seems to contradict her actions described in the first paragraph it is a tribute to the film that we understand that she has no choice but to do what she does. The hypocrisy of the ruling clerics is laid bare as is the stifling patriarchy that many women suffocate under.
As can be seen from the image, the film is rotoscoped: live action film is rendered as animation. Soozandeh explained he chose this method as he couldn’t film in Tehran and didn’t want to fake the city by shooting in Jordan. Hence, the animation’s lack of photo realism ensures that the representation of the setting is not compromised as it’s clearly not realist. The impact on the spectator is not unlike that of Waltz with Bashir, another serious rotoscoped film. However, unlike in the earlier film where the visuals conveyed the dreamlike memories of the protagonist, here it is obviously reality that is being rendered. The impact of this is to emphasise we are seeing what ‘shouldn’t’ (at least as defined by the censors in Iran) be seen: it’s both unreal and real. ‘Unreal’ because it is animated; ‘real’ because no doubt that such events depicted in the film happen.
This was Soozandeh’s debut feature; I look forward to the next one.
I sometimes remember the cinemas I have visited more clearly than the films I watched in them. This is certainly true of Fedora which I watched in the Theater Tuschinski in Amsterdam, one of the most beautiful cinemas I’ve ever visited, in December 1978 on its first release. I seem to remember being taken to our seats by a uniformed usher. I think some of the audience might have had glasses of wine (I might be making that up). At that time the 1921 art deco/art nouveau theatre was still a single screen. There now seem to be six screens in an enlarged complex. All this is, if not clear, at least a memory. About Fedora I remembered very little. Possibly I was too young at the time to understand it.
Fedora was the penultimate film directed by Billy Wilder, who helmed his last film in 1981 and then lived another 20 years, making it to 95. I hope he remained sharp until the end. Fedora is currently streaming on MUBI in its collection of ‘Perfect Failures’, which the curators suggest are films not appreciated at the time of their release but which are worth a second chance. It’s a strange selection so far. Southland Tales (Richard Kelly 2006) and The Countess of Hong Kong (Charles Chaplin 1967) are films I’ve never really been interested in seeing. Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt 2013), however, is a film I found intriguing, perhaps not my favourite film from Ms Reichardt but in no way a ‘failure’. But what about Fedora?
Fedora sees Wilder returning to a film about ‘Golden Age’ filmmaking and specifically to his own key title Sunset Boulevard (1950), signalled by both its subject – ‘Fedora’ is a European star of Hollywood in the 1940s/50s – and its investigator played by William Holden. The plot is relatively straightforward. A prologue shows a woman in black leaping in front of a steam train followed by a TV report of Fedora’s death. Then a flashback shows us Holden’s character ‘Dutch’ Detweiler travelling to Greece to find the renowned star Fedora who is in a form of purdah in an isolated mansion on its own island. A further flashback will show that Dutch, as a young assistant director, once spent a night on a beach in Southern California with Fedora. Now he has a new script with which he hopes to lure Fedora out of retirement and into a new film he will produce as an independent.
What happens in the rest of the plot is fairly predictable. Most audiences will guess the twist in the narrative long before the ‘reveal’. But the film doesn’t seem to be too concerned about plot. I find myself having to agree with Roger Ebert whose review of the film back in 1979 nails it. He recognises that audiences could be easily bored by the predictability of it all and then suggests:
If you can see Fedora and not get hung up on what it’s about and who the characters are, which is admittedly a large order, there’s a real pleasure to be had in sitting there and letting it happen to you. It is not a great movie, but it has the form and feel of a great movie.
The script is actually an adaptation of a story by Tom Tryon, himself an actor in the 1950s/60s. I find it impossible to outline the plot without revealing the twist. As soon as you start to work out how old Fedora must be, you will realise what must have happened. William Holden was himself 60 in 1978 – he died just three years later. If he was supposed to have been a young man when Fedora was already a major star, she must be a woman in her mid-60s at least. The two ‘leading ladies’ in the film are Marthe Keller (born 1945) and Hildegard Knef (born 1925). It’s a strong cast. José Ferrer plays Doctor Vando, the physician who tries to keep Fedora young. Mario Adorf plays the hotel manager who takes pity on Detweiler as he tries to find a way into Fedora’s mansion – today in his 90th year Adorf has 219 credits for mainly Italian and German films. Henry Fonda and Michael York play themselves, Fonda as President of the Academy offering Fedora an honorary Oscar and York as the young man she fell for on her last production.
I watched the opening ten minutes of the film on MUBI and wasn’t overly impressed but I went back a day later and found myself watching the whole film. Ebert is right, there is a fascination in watching a master filmmaker who has scripted the film himself and knows just how to handle his starry cast. There is a one-liner which suggests that Wilder just couldn’t come to terms with a contemporary Hollywood “full of young men with beards” (Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg and others). Fedora is in fact a German-French co-production, based in Munich and Paris and widely distributed in Europe. I’ve always like William Holden and all the leading cast are impressive here. The latter part of the film is a joy, especially after we have dispensed with the reveal and can deal with the characters as they are. Wilder is astute in recognising the problems with what Hollywood was becoming in 1978 but I’m not sure he had enough energy left to sustain and attack beyond this feature. I haven’t seen his last film, Buddy, Buddy (1981), but the reviews aren’t that great. If you take note of Ebert’s verdict you may well enjoy Fedora.
Here is an unusual film release, perfect for lockdown. Sadio Mané, star footballer with Liverpool and Senegal has produced a film about his life and his football career. It is widely available on release via either of its two partners Rakuten TV in Europe and Canal+ in Francophone Africa. In the ‘Rest of the World’ it is available on Pay Per View at low rates (less than $2.00) see https://www.made-in-senegal.com All PPV monies will go to charities.
As a film this is a conventional biopic covering the childhood and ‘football journey’ of its subject. As a form of media event it is something more complex. Most global football clubs are now international brands with their own media production outfits, including their own TV channels/stations as well as associated social media outlets and fan operations. Over the last twelve months I’ve watched many programmes from Liverpool FCTV and gained a certain kind of access to the inner life of the club and some of the players (a handful of players are used in these films – many others are only glimpsed in the background). I feared that this film about Sadio Mané would be just a feature length version of these club videos. But it is much more than that.
The production company is the Berlin-based Vertical Social Club, a company focusing on offering a whole range of media services for sports clients in terms of branding, social media etc. on a global scale. This film meant working with Sadio Mané’s commercial brand sponsor New Balance and with Arena 11 Sports Group, another German company. What Arena 11 actually does I’m not sure but it appears to involve players’ agents and contracts and is linked to the transfer market. The film is credited to Mehdi Benhadj-Djilali,
Peta Jenkin and Jermain Raffington. Peta Jenkin appears to be the director with most experience in this kind of documentary.
But enough of the institutional stuff. Does Sadio Mané have a story interesting enough to fill 72 minutes? You bet he does. Sadio was born in a village in Southern Senegal in the Casamance region. His father was an Imam in the village where subsistence farming is still the main form of employment. His father died when Sadio was seven and he was brought up within his extended family who have a collective belief in education. It’s noticeable that Mané today speaks fluent French whereas the older members of his family speak their local language Diola (or perhaps the more widely-used Wolof?). Sadio wanted to be a footballer from early childhood but the family disapproved so at 15 he made the difficult journey to the capital Dakar with a friend to contact formal football hierarchies and on his return negotiated one more year of schooling before he joined ‘Generation Foot Academy’ in Dakar from which he was eventually signed by the French Ligue 2 club Metz.
This is a remarkable story. Later in the film, Sadio recalls his father’s death was partly the result of a lack of hospital facilities locally. He also refers to the ‘rebels’ in the region who have been fighting for independence for many years and whose actions interrupted funeral arrangements for his father. When Sadio arrived in Metz aged 18, a serious injury threatened to halt his career after only a few months but he recovered from surgery and subsequently played for RB Salzburg in Austria and Southampton in the English Premier League before signing for Liverpool in 2016. Now, as a winner of the European Champion’s League, UEFA Super Cup and World Club Championship, he is one of the most valuable players in the world.
The film is shot in 1:2.35 and mostly follows its subject through three sections – his early life and early career, success with Liverpool in the Champion’s League final of 2019 and the last section covering his return to Senegal after the final in Madrid, his time with his extended family and the ultimate disappointment of Senegal’s defeat in the Africa Cup of Nations by Algeria in a penalty shoot-out in Cairo. No footage of aspects of Sadio’s childhood exist so the production used the animation company Jump to create drawn animations that I think work very well. The style reminded me of the work of French animator/director Michel Ocelot on the ‘Kirikou’ films.
Sadio Mané speaks direct to camera in a relaxed manner and in his own film he seems at ease. He seems like a private person and apart from his agent Björn Bezemer, with whom he has a close relationship, we see him mostly with his extended family, including his uncle with whom he has built a house in Dakar, and in his village back in Casamance. The film ends with him opening the school he has built and the hospital that will be completed soon. He repeats his family’s words to him about valuing education above all. The young man has done well, learning a great deal outside school. But it isn’t easy. He is under pressure, both as an important player in the national team and as a local role model in Casamance.
This is a German film so Jürgen Klopp speaks German, Sadio speaks French and his family’s local language. Much of the rest of the film is in English (or at least I think it is – I’m so used to reading subtitles that I sometimes don’t notice). The Liverpool players who appear are, I think, all non-English players. Virgil Van Dijk, Gini Wijnaldum and Mo Salah speak in English but Naby Keïta, who comes from Guinea and in some ways is closest to Mané in terms of background, speaks in French. Selecting these players to comment seems logical for several reasons but they are not spelt out and I would like to have learned a little more about Sadio’s interaction with the wider Liverpool FC community. But then, I’m a fan and the film does include the shot above in which Sadio stands next to a quote by Bill Shankly, so I can’t complain.
Nina Hoss is a star and a very talented actor and I have enjoyed all her work with Christian Petzold. Now it seems she is keen to support the work of German women as directors and I was excited to see how The Audition, one of two films Hoss made with women in 2019, would pan out. The film was co-written and directed by Ina Weisse, an actor who has now directed three features. Her co-writer here was Daphne Charzani.
The Audition is a complex drama about music and the passion of expert performers. It’s also about tuition and pedagogy and the emotional intimacy of one on one tuition. All of this concerns Anna (Nina Hoss), a violinist who has had to abandon an orchestral career because of anxiety about her playing and who now teaches in a music school in Berlin. Anna is married to a French luthier, Philippe ( Simon Akbarian), who works beneath their apartment and she has a son, Jonas (Serafin Mishiev) who is clearly also a talented musician but as a young teenager is beginning to rebel against his mother. Finally, Anna also has a caring responsibility for her elderly father. It’s a great deal to contend with, especially when Anna takes on a new student, Alex (Ilja Monti), and when she has an offer to join a string quintet led by a fellow teacher.
Female-centred melodramas often feature the woman who has to be wife, lover, mother and daughter but here she must try and be teacher and performer as well. Nina Hoss can manage to represent all of these challenges and she is supported by the script, the ensemble of other players and the direction. Watching the film I had a real sense of just how complex and intelligent was the script and how much Nina Hoss had to express herself through posture and gesture. In an interview she revealed that she could play the piano but had to learn how to hold the violin and how to use the bow. I also thought about how much high art culture seems to be venerated in Germany and other countries of mainland Europe for its own qualities and not, as sometimes in the UK, because of social cachet. I’m not knowledgeable about classical music but I was engaged by the intracacies of the music teaching processes here. I’ve seen some reviews that mention similar American films like Whiplash. I haven’t seen that film but I did think about several European films. Two that sprung to mind were Vier Minuten (Four Minutes, Germany 2006) and La tourneuse de pages (The Page Turner, France 2006). Both of these films share elements about tuition and performance with The Audition, although all three titles offer different narratives. Crucially they all deal with passion related to music and tuition.
The Audition is a good example of a contemporary melodrama. The music drives the passion which in turn needs a release in Anna’s sexual behaviour but also causes an anxiety. There is a great deal happening in the narrative which is difficult to sort out and analyse after a single viewing. Anna finds herself in some form of ‘contest’ with a range of male figures – her husband, father and son, her tutee and two of her colleagues at the music school. Unusually for a female-centred melodrama she doesn’t have a close female friend and the two women she does communicate with are both in some way competitors. One intriguing aspect of the interpretation of Anna concerns the costumes that Nina Hoss wears. One reviewer refers to them as ‘matronly’ and it’s true that I did notice the lack of glamour. There also seems to be a tension between the elegance that Nina Hoss brings to any role and the awkward stances taken up by Anna on occasion. An issue with her skirt also adds to her anxiety at one moment.
In many traditional melodramas the woman who has ‘too much’ passion is ‘punished’ in some way by the resolution of the narrative – a punishment that brings her back ‘into line’. We hope that we’ve moved on from that ideological position and the resolution of the narrative in this film is much more complex. It is a very dramatic ending and it isn’t necessarily all about Anna. In one sense she triumphs but in another she fails. There are consequences for several other characters.
This is certainly one of the best dramatic narratives I’ve seen for some time and I’m still processing it. I’ve read several reviews that I don’t agree with on a range of points. It was sheer joy to watch Nina Hoss present the complex world of Anna Bronsky. The good news is that distributors New Wave have acquired the title for UK distribution but no details of a release are available yet. When it does appear I hope to be able to use it in teaching.
The clip released for Toronto below shows a short scene between husband and wife. The German trailer (no English subs) gives a better impression of the range of incidents in the film.