Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Phoenix - E's essay

Phoenix is about surviving the war and worse, and, we are not quite in Kafka, about finding a way out of the mess and damage, indeed, finding out who you are, now, under radically changed circumstances. The "identity" of the three main characters in Phoenix remains open, due to what has happened. They are actually in search of who they are and can be. The issue of "identity" and its uncertainty is established with the first scene, when an American soldier, the reigning power, is checking the passengers, including Nellie, badly wounded and with a bandaged head. He doesn't trust the wrapping, he wants to see beyond the bandage, wants to see the face, and then, after the initial forceful bluster and command of the situation, is promptly forced to mumble a brief word of apology, and so the Leitmotiv of the movie is introduced. How can, how does one respond to the evidence of what has happened? The soldier can afford to limit his response; he is so to speak an innocent observer. How much more difficult must it be for an accomplice to look the truth in the face, let alone find any kind of response, ever inadequate?

There is no doubt that the film does not flesh out a lot of things, e.g. the pressure to divorce a Jewish spouse, or the mass migration, the millions, literally, of displaced persons fleeing the East at the end of the war, of which this Nellie lookalike might be one. In addition the film presents the story in an opaque way which requires filling in all kinds of motivation, e.g. in the case of Lene's seemingly sudden suicide (which actually is prepared by her expressing her bottomless disgust at Nellie and by her literally final proclamation: da mach ich nicht mit--I am not going to be part of it, namely of any kind of accommodation--but what is left then?). The film also requires a certain willing suspension of disbelief--at the latest since Oedipus slept with his mother without knowing it we might as well assume the unlikely, otherwise we have problems, not only with Michelangelo's painting of God's finger. Film may be a medium eminently suited for a realistic depiction of the world, and it may be fooling us into thinking that it on occasion succeeds, but it is not any more bound to notions of verisimilitude than any other art.

Johnny's denial of the obvious is implausible but I take it as an indication of the depth, the strength of his feeling guilty. He cannot, again the topic, face the truth. It is safer, for his own psychological survival, to assume that his wife perished than to acknowledge that she returned from the dead, from hell where he had helped send her. His relationship to the lookalike Nellie is based on the conviction, firmly held against all evidence (the hand-writing!) that this cannot be Nellie. He begins his new life by trying to destroy his file (from which Lene learns that he divorced Nellie, presumably under pressure and in accordance with Nurnberg Laws) and now wants to be Johann, thinking he can bury the culpable Johnny. It is another fine touch that Johann is the busboy in the new order, employed to clean up.

Lene doesn't understand Nellie, Nellie doesn't understand Johnny, and Johnny refuses to understand what is in front of him--and we, in the end, sit almost if not quite as speechless as Nellie's audience: how does one acknowledge, how does one talk about the unspeakable? Lene wants a complete break with the past and falters at the enormity of the task, of finding a way out (she is deeply helpless, if that is even the right word, given the difference from other forms of helplessness, e.g. that of Nellie's seemingly comfortable in-laws at the end who, just as Johnny, cannot find any words); Johnny wants to pretend that what happened doesn't matter "going forward" with a new identity; he is, for good reasons, more comfortable in attempting, for authenticity's sake, to erase a number that he assumes is not there than to face the number that confirms what would condemn him. And Nellie also wants the impossible, her old face back, wants to be recognized as the woman she no longer is--the number is there, and if it were erased there would be a scar. (Ruth Kluger, a colleague, has an essay trying to explain why, after decades, she decided to have the number erased.)

And then one can of course argue that the film is all too obvious, from Nellie's bandaged head to her learning to walk and talk and even sing, finding her voice (there is a youtube clip of that immensely moving, spell-binding effort), and that specifically the film's ending is actually a cop-out: instead of walking into the sunset Nellie surfaces into the bright light which, metaphor to the end, dissolves her.

Ida, a film from Poland, goes in a different direction. Ida's understanding of who she is, is quite settled and only intermittently, not fundamentally, challenged, let alone denied and destroyed. Ida learns a fact about herself that is at odds with her life--and decides to stick with her life: identity is not in the blood but in our upbringing--and what others make of one which is why Lene rejects Nellie's claim of not being Jewish. More briefly: for Ida return is an option; not so for the persons in Phoenix.

"Barbara" and "Ida" are next, and "Two Lives" is yet another exploration of identity, with Norway, luminous and rainy, and the grey GDR as locales ...

All the best und nichts fuer ungut--may the day stay reasonably sunny.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Dusko - a film can alter how you see something that lies well outside movies

And here is where I come to my last conversation with "Phoenix," because sometimes, a film can alter how you see something that lies well outside movies. As soon as I got home from seeing the film, I opened my copy of Salka Viertel's memoir, "The Kindness of Strangers." She grew up in a well-to-do and cultivated Jewish family in Sambor, Galicia, which is now part of Ukraine, moved to California with her family in 1928, wrote screenplays (including "Queen Christina" and "Deep Valley") and turned her home into a magnet for people fleeing Hitler's Europe.
When I read the book, I couldn't understand Viertel's decision at the end of this passage, and I am not sure I do now. But in my mind, the trajectory of Petzold's heroine is now caught up with the following story, permanently.
Viertel's brother Siegmund, known as Dusko to the family, didn't make it out of Sambor in time. By 1946 Viertel was convinced that Dusko hadn't survived; she got one unconfirmed report that her brother had jumped off a train to the camps and been killed by the SS. Frantic to keep any details of Dusko's fate from their elderly mother, who had managed to reach the U.S. in 1941 and was living in her daughter's home in Los Angeles, Salka made a point of intercepting the mail every day.
One morning, Viertel opened a letter from a woman named Viktoria, an orphaned Galician who had been raised alongside Salka and Dusko in Sambor, as part of the family. Viktoria wrote, "In 1943 [Dusko] came to my house begging me to hide him, but as we are living in a rented place I could not do it, and since the last German Aktion I have not heard from him again." Aktion, Viertel knew, was the word used to mean rounding up Jews.
Viktoria closed the letter by saying she now had four children, and asking, "would Salka, who has always been like a sister to me, send us a food parcel?"
Viertel started to reply.
I wrote her that she had forfeited the right to appeal to my sisterly feelings. She had cruelly denied shelter to a hunted Jew, whose father and mother had given her love and devoted care since she was born, and she had allied herself with monsters and torturers. My tears stained the paper and I had to stop. Could I reproach this cowardly woman for not risking her life? Hadn't others, more powerful than she, stood by indifferently when these unspeakable horrors took place? She was only one among millions ….
I tore up the letter, mailed a CARE package to Sambor, and never told Mama what happened.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Phoenix - notes (and I was always in love with Thulin)

...the warped narrative functions as an allegory for the stories that people and nations recount to themselves in order to go on surviving....

... Phoenix boldly offers us a war without heroes, only ghosts of broken people moving through a broken world, searching in vain for their former selves.

...opening line is an altered quote from Much Ado About Nothing — "Speak low when you speak, love"...

... In an early scene Nelly catches sight of her new face in a shard of mirror — not just any mirror, but a broken relic from the site of her former home, now reduced to rubble.

... Until then, "Speak Low" has figured nominally in the story: At one point Nelly listens to a recording of it with Lene, also a singer, who praises it almost in the same breath as she speaks of her eagerness to leave Germany — with Nelly in tow — for Palestine. "I can't stand German songs anymore," she says, making a wry, unwitting joke. She seems to have forgotten that Weill is as German as they come.

... "Speak Low" is from the 1943 Broadway musical "One Touch of Venus."[In] the 1948 movie [...] Robert Walker has brought to life this statue of the ideal woman (Ava Gardner, that is to say, a goddess), and still can't control her; "Speak Low" is she sings as she leaves her mortal lover.
[Predrag: One Touch of Venus is a sweet light musical, with a very beautiful Ava Gardner, enchanting Kurt Weil's "Speak Low" and nothing to strain your neurons. Curiously, the really wonderful Roman Holiday (1954) (a remake of Oscar-winning Princess O'Rourke (1943), which itself loosely follows Thirty Day Princess (1932)) follows the same plot: a princess instead of a goddess, but the escape from Olympus/court is only 24 hours, there is dancing by the water, and the plain clothes in similar very obtrusive suits and hats.] Nelly sings and Johnny plays, the audience of blandly indifferent post-war Germans regard Nelly with no trace of guilt. They have already convinced themselves that they did nothing that needed forgiving.

...Ah yes, those old friends of Nelly and Johnny, who show up towards the end of the film. That brings me to one movie Petzold, surprisingly, says he hasn't seen: "Return from the Ashes," directed by J. Lee Thompson in 1965, based on the same Hubert Monteilhet novel as "Phoenix." Ingrid Thulin plays a Jewish anesthesiologist who falls in love with Maximilian Schell's scheming, social-climbing chess pro. They marry just as Paris falls to the Nazis, and she is arrested and sent to Auschwitz. [...] The one scene that can stand up to logical comparison with "Phoenix" is the first. "Return From the Ashes" begins on a train to Paris late in 1945. The carriage is full of tired middle-class people, an elderly man, a matronly woman traveling with a little boy of about 10 years of age, and Ingrid Thulin. (Thulin here looks remarkably like post-surgery Nelly: hollowed-out cheeks, bruised eyes, straw-like hair, even a similar shabby raincoat.) The train is traveling very fast. The boy entertains himself by kicking the door to the outside of the rail carriage—bump, bump, bump, as steady and as maddening as a dripping faucet. Then we see his bored, curious hand reach for the door latch. The old man sees it too, shouts "be careful," but it's too late. The little boy opens the door and falls through a blast of smoke and air, presumably to his death. The mother wails, someone pulls the cord, the train halts and the carriage fills with people, as the conductor comes to lead the distraught mother away. And of all these passengers, the only one who doesn't so much as shift in her seat is Thulin. She is utterly still, staring. "Really, such lack of feeling," says one woman, and the old man starts to agree. Then he breaks off mid-word, as the camera moves to show us the number on Thulin's arm.

[Predrag: For the first 1/2 Return from the Ashes  follows the same plot, but then the
wealthy Jewish widow, Dr. Michele Wolf and former Dachau SS whorehouse inmate turns into blond Ingrid Thulin, and from then on this is a thriller with Holocaus forgotten. Filmed in black & white, and staged like a theater play, it cannot even begin to be compared to Phoenix. Maximilian Schell is over-acting, and Ingrid Thulin is not the Bergman Thulin I love so much.]

...When Nelly is dolled up in a black suit with a veiled hat, it evokes Hanna Schygulla, maneuvering through a new but still-ruthless Germany in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "The Marriage of Maria Braun."

[Predrag: Les yeux sans visage is a straight horror movie - especially the long sequence of removing a girl's face is sickening, but Phoenix owes much of the border-crossing and hospital sequences to it. The debt to the plastic surgeon sequence in Dark Passage is greater, even though that is a relatively light-hearted version. The debt to Vertigo is deep. At 1hour 40 min it starts making sense. At 1:50  he says: "Color your hair".
Petzold started with his actors by watching Les demoiselles de Rochefort together, with Gene Kelly and Catherine Deneuve? It's like getting in the mood for Aguirre, Wrath of God by watching Mama Mia.
I have not seen either  Yella (2007) or Barbara (2012).]


The early sequences of Nelly stalking the halls of the Berlin hospital where she's gone to have surgery on her ruined face conjure up Georges Franju's Les yeux sans visage ("Eyes Without a Face", 1953), and not only visually; just as Franju's film mobilized mad-doctor tropes to evoke the medical atrocities of the Holocaust and the spectre of Aryan racial purity, Phoenix frames Nelly's operation in metaphorical terms: "a new face," the surgeon assures her, "is an advantage."

Nelly doesn't need her new visage to evade the authorities à la Humphrey Bogart's wrong-man character in Dark Passage (1957). But as in Delmer Daves' film, it proves useful in exposing the guilt of another.

It's here that Phoenix comes down with a distinct case of Vertigo (1958) and also becomes brutally moving, as Nelly is instructed by a man she has reason to suspect may have been behind her incarceration how to act more like "herself"—already wearing the face of another, she begins to see herself through a different pair of eyes as well.

What's remarkable about Phoenix is how its Farockian didacticism—the fact that Nelly would rather try to reclaim her place and her identity in a German society that tried to exterminate her rather than go with Lene to settle in Palestine—is blended into its drama so that it becomes a film of ideas that is also a film of emotions. For this critic, at least, the feelings in Jerichow, with its cuckolded Turkish version of Cecil Kellaway, and even the markedly superior Barbara, which trapped Hoss' eponymous heroine in an East German hospital while she harboured fantasies of the West, were mostly theoretical: the films, and their social critiques, were so neatly turned out that they didn't leave any residue. Phoenix is neat, too, and perhaps even more chokingly claustrophobic than its predecessors—not least of all when Nelly revisits the spider-hole where she hid from the Nazis—but it also has a plangency that's distinct from being simply and expertly spartan.

Les yeux sans visage is a good starting point to talk about Phoenix, since they are both movies about women's faces that are also images of nations in wartime—the idea of trying to graft a more beautiful face onto a ruined one.

Nina Hoss:
I always have the feeling with Christian that his movies are really about German identity, or about individuals in search of their own identity.

I thought very much about how I could express her journey in her body. When you see the pictures of the people who were at Auschwitz or the other concentration camps, they are so thin and in a way not really there. They look like they don't want to be seen, so they don't get into trouble. That's what I was working on, the fear. I also wanted to show how [Nelly] grows slowly over time, like a flower. Her head goes up and she can remember what it is like to be in the body again.

Christian Petzold:
I didn't show the Franju movie to the actors. I don't want to show them movies like Les yeux sans visage or Dark Passage, because they're too near to their characters, and too faraway in the same moment. The first movie we watched during the rehearsals was Jacques Demy's Les demoiselles de Rochefort (1967).

While we were doing The State I'm In (2002), we were talking about Nuit et brouillard (1956) by Alain Resnais. I'd seen the film as a pupil in school. When it screened at Cannes in 1956, all the Germans at the festival left, because of the movie. Harun told me that for people of his generation, the left-wing students, it was the movie that showed them what had happened in the concentration camps, and so it was the movie that divided them from their parents.

[Ronald]  worked so hard. He looked at 25 movies from the time. He always had cigarettes and dollars in his pockets, because he wanted Johnny to be a real person. But Johnny is dead. From the first moment on the set, I said to him that the tragedy for him as an actor is the same as the tragedy for Johnny as a person—that he's dead. The end of the movie is not him coming back to life; it's that he knows that he's dead.

We shot for three or four months, and then Nina and I have had no connection to each other. It's not because we don't like each other any more. It's because the directing of a movie starring a blonde actress and what goes on in Johnny's basement…the two things are not so far away from each other. At the end of the movie, it wasn't just Nelly who was going away, it was also Nina saying goodbye to my fantasies as well. When the shooting ends on my films, there is always a party, and the Barbara party lasted for days. With this party, everyone went home after 12 minutes. Nobody talked to each other.

There are two questions that people can ask about the movie. One is, "Where is her face?" The other is, "Why didn't Johnny recognize Nelly?" My answer to both is that people who ask these questions don't like movies. It's what Hitchcock called "the plausibles." There's a German word for it too, and it's a bad word. But it's also a question of morality that he doesn't see her face.

Harun Farocki [...] died five weeks ago. I don't reflect about it. In the future when I'm writing, I'm going to go to his grave like in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). There is no other collaboration that I can think about. I'm going to take a break next year.

In our work together, everybody thought that Harun was the cold-blooded intellectual and I was the warm-blooded, emotional guy. It was totally the other way around. I'm the constructor in the stories, and Harun was always on the side of emotion.

We read three or four books by [Austrian essayist] Jean Amery. After he survived Auschwitz, he wrote in one essay, about being in a camp for displaced persons, and how after he came back to Germany, he thought the people there would embrace him and show their interest in forming a new society. He came back and nobody looked at him. Friends didn't recognize him. His friends had cut him not only of their memories but also out of their senses. He said, "I'm like a ghost."

At first I didn't want to make "Phoenix" because "Vertigo" exists. Harun said the same thing. It's a fantastic movie but we hate it a little bit, too. We changed perspective to a female perspective. At the beginning she is bandaged and you think she is a victim, like all of the survivors' victims. But at this moment, when she is in the basement, she starts to be the director of the movie and the director of the love affair. She was bringing back his memories. This is the turning point I like so much.

In the early '30s the Germans had made all of these great films, like "People on Sunday," the Billy Wilder, [Edgar G.] Ulmer and [Robert] Siodmak film. These movies were full of life. All of these great Jewish directors had to leave Germany and they made film noir: "Lost Weekend," "Detour," "The Killers." They changed their positive light into the dark light of the night. I said to the cinematographer [Hans Fromm] that we need color, because we have to have the natural and beautiful qualities of the world, but also the noir and the realistic. We have to use 35-millimeter. I like to shoot on 35-mm because I don't have the [playback] monitor. There's one camera and you can't see the rushes until two days later. You have to trust the things of what you saw. What's fantastic about 35-mm is that two days later, as the rushes are coming, you see them projected at a screening and it's not your movie. It feels a little bit strange. It's done. I like that very much.

And here is Nina Hoss on herself. It makes you think, God, how worthy every life is, even if it’s not exciting.  It’s such a great experience when all you need is on your back. It makes you realize how you are surrounded by things you don’t really need.