@NZIFF: Phoenix – Masterpiece of German Cinema

Before investigating Belgian and Kiwi films, German cinema is my first love. I’ve been obsessed by R.W.Fassbinder’s melodramas, enchanted by Schygulla’s and Barbara Sukowa’s performances, devastated by Germany, Pale Mother, more than charmed by Akin’s most famous films… I couldn’t resist seeing Petzold’s new feature film at the NZIFF, and it was a good thing: I’m ravished.

What is it about?

Nelly, survivor from concentration camps, comes back to Berlin with severe facial injuries. Surgical reconstruction could offer her the opportunity to become someone new. She rejects the idea. How could she be another woman? She dreams and lives for her man, Johnny. She frantically searches for him, even though everyone keeps telling her that he betrayed her. When they finally meet, Johnny takes her for a spitting image of his wife, and proposes her a bargain: why don’t she fake she is Nelly for real and help him get her rich heritage? She’ll obtain half of it. At that point, the broken Nelly would do anything to have him back & starts to play the game…

Many would think that this is a commonplace premise for a film about post WWII. Yet, Phoenix is a masterpiece. Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss form a brilliant director/actress duo and bring reflexion on the possibility for German people to be reborn after 1945 to a new light. Scars are indelible, traitors are at every corner, and still, a German Jewish woman will rise from the ashes.

Remarkable Film Adaptation

There is no moderate debate on film adaptation. Some consider that the director’s duty is to stick to the book. The others, like me, believe that the most important thing is the exact opposite: it’s much more interesting to recreate a universe inspired by the book but bringing something personal and distinctive. Make the story yours! If not, it’s often the result of a lack of imagination or a lack of guts!

From this perspective, Phoenix is a masterstroke of film adaptation. Based on a novel written by French writer Hubert Montheilet (Return from the Ashes, 1961), the film inscribes the book premise first in a German context, secondly in German cinema history. Whereas in the original version, the heroine returns to a normal life with her man in the name of love, Petzold develops a totally different story that keeps you till the end, in a state of high suspense. No more Hollywood-like happy ending is possible, nor any unlikely reconciliation.

Astounding aesthetic, brilliant heroïne

Petzold, known as one of the best contemporary German filmmaker, plunges us into a masterful thriller as the plot builds toward a perfect climax. Will this woman finally admit that her man did betray her? How long will she endure this unbearable domination? Will her man love her again? We are constantly balanced between suspense and surprise, in a very Hitchcockian style.

Petzold’s use of a film-noir aesthetic is the adequate answer to the comparison with the master of suspense. Yet, Hans Fromm’s photography brings something new. Of course, he plays with shadow and light, and the shots are striking when Nelly walks uncertainly around the streets at night, being nothing else than the shadow of herself. But instead of a sharp chiaroscuro contrast, Petzold and Fromm use a light of shades that allow a space for reconstruction. German expressionist had in itself something scary and irrevocable. Here, a space is created where hope can infiltrate despair.

As mentioned before, it’s also Nina Hoss’ performance that makes this rebirth becoming real. She mastered in the role of a dismantled woman. The actress embodies so well the physical and mental wounds of a camp survivor that’s it’s easy to believe that the real Nelly is dead, even to herself.

Anyone interested in German cinema will draw a parallel between the collaboration of Rainer Werner Fassbinder with Hannah Schygulla and the director/actress duo formed by Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss. It’s impossible not to think of The Marriage of Maria Braun, as Nelly observes Berlin reduced to ashes through the veil of her black hat. Maria had the same. You cannot create a post-WWII German movie without knowing your classics!

The Marriage of Maria Braun
The Marriage of Maria Braun, R. W. Fassbinder (1979)

Nelly is part of this heritage, of a post-war German cinema rich of deconstructed faces (impossible no to think neither of Lene’s facial paralysis in Germany, Pale Mother) and schizophrenic personalities. It’s no wonder that Phoenix refers to a night cabaret and that Nelly is a singer! Rewatch Lola by Fassbinder!

Lola, R.W. Fassbinder (1981)
Lola, R.W. Fassbinder (1981)

Nevertheless, Nelly is a heroine in her own style. No more proud and dignified, no more careless and oblivious. She doesn’t reflect the Germany of the traitors and the lost souls any more. She is the promise of a resurrection, of a vital strength that will win over them all.

The striking ending of The Marriage of Maria Braun has been resonating in me for years now, and I know that Phoenix’s final scene will mark German cinema history as well.

Real cinema is pure emotion, what else?

You’ve have surely understood that the polish cinematography of Christian Petzold created an organic whole that grabbed my heart and soul. But cinematic responses to films are very personal. I’ve read a review of the film where the author finds Petzold’s film too minimalist. He couldn’t identify itself with its restraint. I was the opposite.

I found myself overwhelmed by profound nostalgia and raptured by an extreme craving for life. Maybe it’s because I’m a lover of German cinema and of German words & sounds, maybe it’s because I identified myself so much with this fragile but strong woman…

But to tell you the truth, I know it’s most of all because of the music. Since my early childhood, Kurt Weill’s songs have the power to shake my entire body and make me sing without noticing it; they’ve always given the strength to move forward.

What about you? Did you see the film? Did you already know German cinema before? I’m so curious about your feelings and emotions!

One last thing, Johnny is not called “Johnny” without any reason. Listen to this Kurt Weill’s song, and you’ll discover why!

Sally Welly

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