Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
Director Christian Petzold (Barbara) is a master of the subtle, the surreptitious and the sneaky. In his latest film "Phoenix" he has crafted a rich and thoughtful film experience that is a thriller, a meditation on revenge and a love story.
Nelly (Nina Hoss) is an ex-cabaret singer in the era of Post WWII. Her face is badly damaged from a nazi bullet wound. She had been arrested and sent to a concentration camp.
Upon liberation, Nelly has facial surgery and returns to Berlin. She wants to look the same as she once did, but she is deeply despirited by her new face.
Nelly wanders the streets bereft.
She is obsessed, in particular, with her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). She wonders of his whereabouts and what his condition might be. Nelly heads to the Phoenix club, and just by chance, she sees him waiting on tables.
She returns the following morning and confronts him. Nelly tells Johnny that her name is Esther. To him, Nelly is a total stranger.
The film has a wonderfully accurate sense of time and place. Like a true film noir, the dazed Nelly wanders from building to building and heap to heap, a fedora hat concealing her bandaged face. Her shadows hang black and deep on a cement wall, hinting at Dick Tracy as well as F.W. Murnau and Billy Wilder. The clubs are full to brimming with a forced voluptuousness of skin, smoke and painted ladies. Sheets of bright red slice across gray war-torn walls like the ripping nails from a spurned mistress. Such images seem directly from George Grosz and Otto Dix.
Hoss is completely immersed and captivating by herself, but Zerhrfeld also is insular, magnetic and slightly scary in his singular vision of control. In his deep hard eyes like two currants, or a pair of dice thrown together in reckless anger, he recalls the actor John Garfield.
One does not know of Johnny's full motives until later and his mania is sad and desperate with hints of the classic film "Vertigo" along with a dinner party that is rife with claustrophobia. Only her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) knows the truth.
The film is no afternoon escape (although it works on that level); it is an historical adventure, no less rich for its sadness and guilt. This is a film peircing in detail, as illustrative as a painting. Disarmingly slow and then stinging, it pulls with its own eccentricity.
"Phoenix" falls into many genres. Its noirish style may suggest that every one of us lives inside our own square of peril. More importantly however, the film speaks of haunt and circumstance, along with some curdled just desserts.
Write Ian at email@example.com