Imagine Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo as seen through the eyes of Madeleine/Judy, the Kim Novak role(s) and you’ll get a sense of the intriguing but flawed idea at the core of the German film Phoenix.
Last things first: The new movie’s final scene is so shiver-inducingly good, it’s easy to imagine that writer-director Christian Petzold built the rest of the script around it. The scene hinges on a reprise of the Kurt Weill song, “Speak Low,” which has haunted the soundtrack throughout. Getting to that scene, though… well, it’s an uneasy journey.
Here’s the story. Actress Nina Hoss, who has collaborated with Petzold in several previous films (for me, Barbara was their best) plays Nelly. A Jewish survivor, barely, of the camps, she’s driven across the border back into Germany by her best friend, Lene (Lene Kunzendorf).
Nelly’s face is disfigured from her ordeal. American guards at the checkpoint insist she peel back her bandages. “Come on, she’s not Eva Braun,” Lene says. (A mix of Catherine Keener and Minnie Driver, actress Kunzendorf is one of the movie’s key players, and it’s a shame there’s not more of her throughout.)
A professional singer, Nelly discovers that the rest of her family have all been massacred. She’s the sole survivor, and now an heiress. This she learns while undergoing reconstructive surgery meant to repair her destroyed face and make her resemble her former self. From the hospital, it’s on to Berlin, where she hopes to find her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Lene tries to discourage her, and she has cause to: She knows that Johnny divorced Nelly when his wife was seized by Nazis. There’s something fishy to his wartime activities.
Nevertheless, Nelly goes to the bar, the Phoenix, where Johnny now buses tables. But she doesn’t identify herself. Glimpsing a vague resemblance in her to (he thinks) his deceased ex, Johnny says, “Alive, she was poor. Dead, she’s rich.” So, hoping to get his hands on her family inheritance, he schemes to pass off this faux “Nelly” as the real thing — never guessing that that’s exactly who she is.
Nelly mutely submits to his makeover treatments as he tries to get her to play, well, herself, more “authentically.” These scenes will remind film buffs of Vertigo and James Stewart’s torturous manipulation of Kim Novak, molding her into the woman he thinks he has lost. Hitchock’s borderline necrophiliac film leads to the glorious apotheosis when, in a green neon haze from the sign outside the hotel window, “Judy” emerges as “Madeleine.”
Here’s where comparison between the two films has to end. Hitchcock took us to a heightened world with his fetishistic, stylized wardrobes and shots; we were already in a dimension beyond realism, even before the rooftop chase that starts his masterpiece. Phoenix grounds us in a realistic, rubble-strewn world. Nelly’s silent complicity just doesn’t make sense.
I never understood Nelly’s goal or endgame. She isn’t out for vengeance. She isn’t really out for reconciliation (or else she would declare herself). The larger suggestion is that her character has been reduced to such a gray ghost, drifting between the world of the past and the dead, and the living world of the present, that she cannot act with any true purpose.
It’s a great metaphor for the spiritual dislocation survivors of war might feel. Dramatically, though, it’s a dead end. Nevertheless, there’s a reason director Petzold has wanted to work repeatedly with actress Hoss. There’s a bruised translucence to her acting, and I look forward to further collaborations between these artists.
Also opening is Satyajit Ray’s magnificent Apu Trilogy, including the films Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, 1955), Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959).
How can I convince anyone to turn off his phone and settle into this tranquil, immersive, six-hour saga? Lovers of film and lovers of life should try to, if they can. Covering the early years of a young Bengali boy growing up in semi-poverty in the countryside, then the city, the three films — scored by a then-unknown Ravi Shankar — were made with very little money, featuring nonprofessional actors. The result is deeply beautiful.
The films are simple and profound, documenting the pulse and struggles of workaday life, and the blows brought by the deaths of loved ones. Having recently lost my brother Jef, I found watching the films’ series of deaths wrenching yet also comforting. That’s life, after all, is the trilogy’s baseline message.
Lovers of screen acting might also want to check out the documentary Listen to Me Marlon, consisting primarily of old footage (screen tests, films, home movies) of Brando, set to the sometimes stream-of-consciousness thoughts that the actor recorded privately.
Like many actors, he can come across a little vague and touchy-feely. The doc is most valuable for the old footage, turning the clock backward and restoring him to the vigorous beauty he abused in later years. His words are sometimes frank. “My mother was the town drunk,” he recalls.
Of his breakthrough character, Stanley Kowalski, he says, “I absolutely hate that person and I couldn’t identify with [him].” He doesn’t try to explain his craft as an actor. It’s clear he was sometimes mystified himself by his gift. “You don’t always know when you’re good,” he says. On the other hand: “Damn, damn, damn, when it’s right, it’s right. You can feel it in your bones.”
Phoenix. With Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf. Directed by Christian Petzold. Rated PG-13. In German with subtitles. 98 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
The Apu Trilogy. Directed by Satyajit Ray. Three films playing in rep. Unrated. In Bengali with subtitles. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
Listen to Me Marlon. A documentary directed by Stevan Riley. Unrated. 95 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.