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
Maleficent (Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, VOD) does sort of a “Wicked” number on the story of Sleeping Beauty’s evil sorceress, casting her as the tragic figure of a dark fantasy (but not too dark for children—barely) of a revisionist fairy tale. Angelina Jolie plays the adult Maleficent, a fairy who watches over and defends the natural and supernatural wilds from human assault. With her magnificent leathery wings and curled horns, she has the look of a beautiful demon (even her cheekbones are sharpened to an edge that look like they could cut an unwary lover to ribbons) but is at heart an innocent, a primeval force whose emotions are pure and motives without guile. Her betrayal, at the hands of a human (Sharlto Copley) who was once a friend and lover, is an assault so personal and intimate and disfiguring that children can’t help but feel the transgression as a terrible, horrible wrong while adults see it as a form of rape. It is as powerful a dramatic moment you will see in an American film, let alone a mainstream spectacle, and coupled with Jolie’s committed performance (ripples of personality and conflicted emotions, as well as a playful sense of humor, play under even her iciest moments), it gives the film a power beyond the CGIed-to-monotony fantasy designs and magical creatures.
Not to slight Elle Fanning, who plays the princess Aurora as another innocent whose purity gets under Maleficent’s vengeful shell. Fanning has the ability to radiate pure joy and wonder and does so, but Jolie shows us that the potential for love is still within her, merely buried under rage and hatred and vengeance. It is a righteous revenge film, but with a feminist twist and a redemptive journey. To quote Matt Zoller Seitz: “The movie is a mess, but it’s a rich mess. It has weight. It matters.”
The five featurettes are quite brief (the longest, “From Fairy Tale to Feature Film,” runs only eight minutes) and there are five deleted scenes. The Blu-ray also features bonus DVD and Disney Anywhere Digital HD copies.
A Most Wanted Man (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) will stand as the final film completed by Philip Seymour Hoffman before his untimely death in February and that alone is reason enough to see the film, adapted from the post 9/11 novel by John le Carré and directed by Anton Corbijn, a music video veteran who becomes more accomplished with each feature. Hoffman has the ability to lose himself in his roles and as Günther Bachmann, the leader of covert German intelligence agency that monitors potential terrorist activity, he seems to pare down a performance to give us a man who betrays nothing of what he’s thinking or feeling yet radiates a gentle warmth for his team (made up of superb German actors Nina Hoss, Daniel Brühl, and Franz Hartwig). All we really know is his loyalty to his country and to his crew, and they return that loyalty in spades.
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.