Taking most of its plot from Hubert Monteilhet’s 1961 novel Return From the Ashes, the new movie by German filmmaker Christian Petzold feels like something out of that era. With its contrived plot and high-gloss possibilities, Phoenix would have been an ideal project for Lana Turner and director Douglas Sirk after Imitation of Life.
It begins at the end of World War II, with the re-emergence of the heavily-bandaged Nelly (the soulful Nina Hoss) from Auschwitz. She has been disfigured by a gunshot wound to the face; her friend Lene (Nina Kuzendorf) helps nurse her back to health, urging Nelly to claim her postwar reparations and join other surviving Jews in Palestine. Nelly, however, is fixated on her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, who really looks like an old-fashioned movie star), but he thinks she is dead and doesn’t recognize her with her new face. He has an idea, however—the rat. If this mystery woman will pretend to be Nelly, they can claim her inheritance and split the money.
A few short takes on SIFF offerings for the third weekend of the biggest, longest film festival in the United States.
PHOENIX (Christian Petzold, Germany, 2014; 98 minutes)
Fresh from Auschwitz and extreme facial reconstruction, Nelly returns to the noirish backstreets and bars of bombed-out Berlin, looking for what’s left of herself—and the husband whose memory helped her survive hell. Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) doesn’t recognize this gaunt, shell-shocked stranger as his once-glamorous wife, but plots to use her in a scam to inherit wealth left by Nelly’s gassed relatives. Sure to turn up on year-end Ten Best lists, this brilliant film plumbs the nature of identity, post-WWII guilt and denial, death and resurrection—and showcases a shattering performance by Nina Hoss. – KAM Sunday, May 31, 7:15pm, SIFF Uptown Theater
Barbara, from director Christian Petzold, is a fiercely directed character piece set in rural East Germany long before the fall of The Wall. According to the program notes, it’s 1980 in the GDR, but you have to piece together the era and the situation from the clues on screen: talk of hopes of going to the West, a radio broadcast of GDR athletes at the Olympics, the harassment of secret police who conduct almost daily searches of the run-down apartment assigned to Barbara (Nina Hoss, in one of the most searing performances of 2012), a doctor from East Berlin who has been banished to this nowhere village for carrying on an affair with a man from West Germany.
Next to the sea and surrounded by forest, it’s a stormy paradise; on her bike rides along the forest trail, the trees rage in the constant windstorms of a world percolating in distrust and sublimated fury. Is there anyone here by choice, or is this simply a prison without walls for unruly citizens? Hoss is all wrapped up anger and emotional distance as Barbara, which the others in the hospital take as urban arrogance except for the teddy bear-ish doctor (Ronald Zehrfeld) who has accepted his exile with something approaching peace. And when she plots her escape, the plan is complicated when she puts herself on the line to protect a teenage girl who constantly breaks out of a local work camp. The critique of the GRD culture committed to breaking the spirits of mavericks and rebels and would-be dissidents is secondary to the human story of Barbara’s quiet revolution, a fight against a dehumanizing system that takes a not-unexpected turn and yet is still so satisfying.
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained opens on Christmas Day in multiple theaters. Expect Tarantino to once again push boundaries and use genre conventions to explode expectations on how to approach a “serious” subject. What a double it would made with Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln: the studious, low-key drama of the political deal-making to pass the Thirteenth Amendment and ban slavery forever, and the furious, violent, audacious revenge fantasy driven not by history but anger and righteous vengeance against a culture of dehumanization. At area theaters.
A couple of years ago, U.S. festival and arthouse audiences were riveted by Red Riding Trilogy, a production for Britain’s Channel Four exploring a history of crime, of both the organized and the darkly obsessive varieties, twisting its way through a community in the North of England over the span of a decade. The trilogy was a unified work pursuing a narrative involving a teeming cast of characters, yet each of the three feature-length components (“1974,” “1980,” and “1983”) was handled by a different director, and each director took his own, quite distinct stylistic approach to his part of the saga.
Much the same is true for Dreileben, a 2011 triptych for German television that played this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. Again, three different directors have made three feature films linked by a crime—more precisely, by the hunt for an escaped murderer in and around the picturesque village of the title—and if anything the results differ more in tone, style, and focus than the three parts of Red Riding. The time frame is much more limited, a matter of days or weeks. At least, that’s true of the manhunt. In a larger sense, Dreileben reaches far back into the past, especially in parts two and three, as new information emerges about aspects of characters’ histories that had been imperfectly understood, or even unsuspected, before.
Perhaps the most striking difference between the trilogies is that Red Riding, no matter how many characters it juggled and how wide-ranging its plots and subplots, was always “about” the crimes at the center of the story; Dreileben, more often than not, focuses its attention elsewhere. In the first film, Christian Petzold’s Beats Being Dead, a young intern named Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) working at a clinic in a bucolic setting is on a cozy career path, given that the chief surgeon’s attractive daughter (Vijessna Ferkic) is sweet on him and daddy’s eager to recommend him for higher things. Then a cute biker chick blows him a kiss, and even though the immediate aftermath of that gesture is painful for both of them, a romance ensues. When not accommodating the biker gang, Ana (Luna Mijovic) works as a maid in a nearby hotel, and as she and Johannes traverse the woods and roads and bridges between their respective workplaces, we hear distant sirens, glimpse roadblocks, detours, and other signs of the manhunt in progress. We also glimpse how the manhunt begins, an incidental blunder by Johannes himself, who opens a door when he shouldn’t and unwittingly enables the escape of a man believed to be a homicidal maniac.
The principal focus of Beats Being Dead remains the affair between Johannes and Ana. A Bosnian refugee, she too has an air of hunted animal about her, and the emotional demands she begins to make of him have soon set both Johannes and the viewer on edge. So does the drift of the narrative. It’s as though we were encountering the hallmarks of the slasher movie—e.g., a floating camera perspective that may indicate Somebody Watching or may be just a casual change of angle and coverage—but rather than setting us up for cheap shocks, these stylistic tropes serve a contemplative mode infused with ambiguity and unease. Ana’s biker gang arcs back into view from time to time, though their potential for menace ebbs away, mutating into something more like embarrassment. And still out there somewhere—often as not caught, like Ana herself, on a municipal video monitor to which apparently no one pays attention—is Molesch the murderer (Stefan Kurt), who perhaps hasn’t actually murdered anyone, but may yet.
It’s unnecessary—and would be dirty pool—to reveal here the outcome of Johannes and Ana’s stories, shared or separate. The concluding scenes are powerful, the fulfillment of itineraries no less disturbing for our coming to “understand” them. In this,Beats Being Dead is consistent with the mission of Dreileben overall: to define the incompleteness of “truth,” to underscore the impossibility of “seeing” everything, even about ourselves.
The second installment in the trilogy, Don’t Follow Me Around by Dominik Graf, takes an almost absentminded approach to the Molesch manhunt—an especially odd tactic since the main character, Johanna (Jeanette Hain), is a forensic psychologist summoned to Dreileben to help design the best plan for recapturing the escapee. Confusion about her hotel reservation leads her to look up an old friend, Vera (Susanne Wolff), who offers the guest room in her perennially under-renovation house. To be sure, the film vouchsafes plenty of scenes with Jo on the job, incidentally enlarging on the personalities and quirks of police personnel peripherally seen in Beats Being Dead; we even touch base with a scene from the previous film in which Jo was literally a passer-by. But the heart of part two is Jo’s personal story: her single-parenthood; her relationship with the young daughter (Malou Hain) she’s left back home with loving grandparents (wonderful to reencounter two denizens of Wim-Wenders-world, Rüdiger Vogler and Lisa Kreuzer, touchingly aged); the renewal of the old friendship that proves to have been more ambivalent than Jo or Vera cares to remember, and to turn on rivalry over a lover they didn’t know they shared. Further complication is supplied by Vera’s schlock-novelist husband Bruno (Misel Maticevic), who goodhumoredly tries to ride out the rising tide of female emotionality and erotic attraction, but fails.
In this section of Dreileben we’re immersed still more deeply in the theme of what-story-are-we-telling-here-anyway? Each scene, interaction, or apparent digression is worth watching, yet the eschewal of anything resembling a conventional narrative agenda grows more insistent as the movie proceeds. Violence erupts a couple of times, not always in connection with the Molesch thread; one burst of mayhem on the part of a passing motorist serves as an accidental (but no less pointed for that) echo of a verbally recalled gaffe from Jo’s hard-drinking past. Molesch himself intersects the narrative like a phantom out of the forbidden zone of the imagination just at the moment Jo and Bruno are, well, most indisposed to be interrupted.
Whereas Petzold’s movie had the startling clarity of hi-def digital photography, Graf’s is shot in the fogged colors and spongelike textures of 16-millimeter celluloid blown up to 35. Although initially disconcerting when seen right after (well, 15 minutes after) the Petzold portion of Dreileben, this almost home-movie-like palette suits the mood of reassessment and reverie, frequently alcohol enhanced, that dominates Don’t Follow Me Around—especially in the coda when, the Molesch case abruptly concluded, Johanna returns home to pick up the pieces of the other “case” that’s come to preoccupy her.
After the way Dreileben‘s first two sections provocatively steer around the manhunt in pursuit of other narrative and aesthetic issues, it’s initially somewhat disappointing to realize that part three, Christoph Höchhausler’s One Minute of Darkness, will feature Molesch himself as the point-of-view character. No worries. Höchhausler has no interest in shifting to conventional thriller mode, or sentimentalizing the madman or leaching him of dangerousness. Before this final chapter has ended, we’ll have a better idea of the extent and nature of Molesch’s madness and guilt, but without explaining them away or reducing their horror. We’ll have revisited scenes from the earlier movies, but from a different angle and within a different context that adjusts meaning, motive, and understanding. This third section, like the first, is shot in razor-sharp hi-def, and needs it.
In case you’re wondering how three directors collaborating with different writers could manage to respect the same core reality while framing their individual interpretations of it—they don’t, not entirely. There are inconsistencies. What happens in one movie, with the characters standing thus-and-so, is not necessarily replicated when the same scene is played in another of the movies. Even depictions of the capture of Molesch differ to the point of contradicting each other. Do such discrepancies, divergences, invalidate Dreileben, betoken sloppiness or indecision? You must know by this point I’m not about to answer that in the affirmative. I don’t know which director is “right” in solving this case. I do know that it’s right that none of us, with absoluteness, finally can.