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Entries in Petzold (4)

Thursday
Mar162017

Phoenix

This film will be always be known for its final scene, one of the most magnificent in late memory. But it is all that comes before it – the simple chamber drama of diffidence and greed, the apocalypse that nearly ended all chambers, all dramas, all greeds – that seems underwhelming until the viewer apprehends the coda. Indeed, he hears the coda before it is actually played, much as one might anticipate the final movement in a symphony because all prior movements must disembogue into a solitary note.

We begin with a most unusual scene: a female driver navigates a recently – from all indications, very recently – demilitarized zone. Now all is quiet and bright, like the future of this once-great country, but the scars remain. Scars in the literal sense when a sort of mummy appears in the passenger seat. The car is halted by a brash English-speaking soldier, whom the driver insists has not stumbled upon “Eva Braun,” which settles our time and place. The soldier nevertheless demands a closer inspection and, in short order, solemnly withdraws and apologizes. The women proceed – a reference to one of history’s most notorious concubines was not necessary to establish the figure’s gender – and arrive at a clinic for most desperate clients. There the surgeon identifies Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) as a member of a massacred minority, and yet the camera lingers on the woman still cloaked in plaster. Some options are confronted (“One cannot look exactly the way one was before”), and some decisions made. While overnighting in the hospital, our mummy wanders into the hallway only to spot a parallel shape and ambition a few doors down. They both end up in a room neither should have entered, a cabinet of memories, and who we think is our invisible woman cradles a photograph pinned to the wall. The picture may or may not contain her former self, but it is certainly outshined by the loutish smile of Johnny Lenz (Ronald Zehrfeld).

The lady who slowly unravels herself – literally and figuratively – is Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss). Nelly has just survived an unspeakable evil, one so incredible and all-encompassing that its mere endurance is considered a death of sorts; in fact, Nelly is presumed dead by her loutish husband and everyone else. Black-eyed and dented, she is driven by Lene to a pile of ghastly rubble only to be informed that what remains of her home is roughly akin to what remains of her immediate family, prompting Lene to propose a special ascent. Yet Nelly hesitates, and she hesitates because of a certain loutish smile. Nelly will seek out Johnny, because she believes only Johnny will be able to look past the internal and external wounds that have reduced her into a shadow, a grey pile of ash just like her namesake. She will find him as she left him, in a bar also named after a mythical bird, a bar once filled with the stiff, merciless soldiers who sought the annihilation of a people and a continent, now a venue of the vulgar filled with serviceman who obliterated those annihilators. But somehow he does not recognize her. She only resembles his wife, who cannot be anything except dead – and here I will permit myself an aside. We should not find it absurd that a woman could wish to remain in a country that tried to destroy her, especially if that country echoes with her language and her entire history. We should likewise eschew the temptation to judge survivors who simply wish the past to vanish during the day and resign themselves to hellish reminders each night. But what we can and should find absurd is that a woman like Nelly Lenz, once a well-known cabaret singer, could overlook a loutish smile and barrel of a gut, the only two features the viewer will ever remember about Johnny Lenz, once her accompanying pianist.  So when Johnny is arrested one terrible October afternoon when the war has already assumed its final turn, it will only take two days for his wife to be detained as well.  The trouble with this whole story, according to Lene, is that the accompanying pianist does not accompany his wife on what will likely be her final march, having been released the very same day of her arrest – and we should stop our revelations right there.

Some implausibilities surface in Phoenix that will distract the inexperienced viewer, until we realize that we are not being asked to measure plausibility. Instead, our task involves the will to live on the part of someone who has been subjected to atrocities no human should imagine much less sustain. Is the desire to regain what has been lost in whatever form possible, even if that form possesses but a loutish smile and a claim on an inheritance? Or is it the desire to recreate what once was yet in a different form, much like the holy land that Lene assures Nelly will provide them both with peace of body and soul? The question is never quite answered, because this is a Petzold production, and because Nelly has already ingested far too many questions. What she really wants is to become again the cabaret singer who, by dint of stealth, her husband's ingenuity, and a handful of friends, remained untainted by the evil around her for the vast majority of these wicked years. So when Lene shows her a picture of former acquaintances, she safely presumes that the crosses above their heads indicate their current non-existence on earth. "And what about the ones with circled heads?" she asks innocently, and is informed that those were the very opposite of innocent. Those familiar with German cinema and literature will detect a cynicism and slenderness of character development much more typical of their Gallic counterparts, which is unsurprising given the original story. They will also detect echoes of a French tale about a drowned woman in the Seine and a deranged surgeon, and yet another French tale that in time became one of the greatest of all cinematic accomplishments.  Unlike those two unusual productions, Petzold's work relies on its actors, especially on Hoss's superhuman talents, to render a very simple tale with steadily rising power. The film, grey and unsubstantial at its onset, resolves itself into concrete and glorious hues. And, as a certain cabaret singer might whisper, my ashes like the Phoenix may bring forth a bird that will revenge it on you all.

Sunday
Feb262017

Yella

We begin this film observing a young woman, neither very attractive nor unworthy of a devoted rake's attention, escaping from an invisible predator. Invisible, because although someone will soon emerge as a long-time tormentor, the pace the woman keeps and the franticness of her stride bespeak a far greater nemesis, perhaps that of time or its knight-errant, conscience. She is not clearly innocent or clearly guilty as far as our eyes can see. But we soon learn that our eyes are substantially limited in what they are allowed to perceive.

Our location is this German town and the woman is a sensitive and somewhat troubled thirtysomething by the name of Yella Fichte (Nina Hoss). Yella is pretty in the way that many German women are pretty: that is, her tough character is imprinted squarely upon her delicate features, a pattern that no amount of makeup or clothing could ever alter. She is not so much a tomboy as a woman who cannot afford to be too feminine in a harsh and unforgiving man's world. One such fellow is her ex-husband Ben (Hinnerk Schönemann), who just so happens to be tailing Yella in his Range Rover and begging for another chance on a relationship that Yella seems to regret with every ounce of her being. "You got a job," says Ben in an oddly high-pitched voice, "I can tell by the way you walk you have a really good job." Ben will often display how very well he knows his wife; yet we never get the impression of happier days past for the childless couple. Rather, Ben, unlike many men of his generation, appears once upon a time to have demonstrated decent earning potential. And in a small former East German town such lottery tickets are scarce. Our heroine breaks the news of her Hannover job to her bald, strapping father, an obvious widower, and we understand that she has been chosen by fate to smash the cycle of lucklessness and mediocrity and emigrate from Wittenberge to a more prosperous pocket of humanity. After a laconic breakfast during which Yella stares at her morose father with the glee of someone who enjoys being missed, she finds that instead of her taxi, an officious Ben has shown up to take her to the train station. 

Ben's agenda, of course, does not involve the station. Instead, Yella is subjected to a "sentimental tour" with a failed man's last business plan desperate even to the untrained ear, as well as a brown envelope stuffed with figures and calculations of a revival – numbers that Yella, an accountant by trade and demeanor, refuses to examine. What could she possibly learn now about this man whom she quite clearly abhors? What does it say about her that, once upon a time, she chose to marry him? Without the slightest verbal expression all these emotions race across her face, just as Ben loses his temper with the ease of those accustomed to violence, and just before the Range Rover swerves off a bridge and into the Elbe river – and here our film assumes a curious tenor. Yella awakes on what appears to be the other shore. Ben moves first then collapses near her. When she gets to her feet she finds, quite miraculously, that her bags have been washed ashore as well. When she arrives at the station she finds, quite miraculously, that her train has not left – even though it appears almost entirely empty. And after a quiet if nervous trip, she awakes again, this time in what must be assumed to be Hannover. It is, however, a Hannover that few will recognize, yet that is of no interest to our protagonist or any other person in her world. So many times in Yella we see one, almost trivial scene that we don't understand then later see a very similar scene and understand them both as significant, which is the sign of impeccable storytelling. A deposit on her hotel appears unpayable until she remembers the wad of cash her father silently pressed into her hand; her chance encounter with a creepy, venal man called Philipp (Devid Striesow) leads her into a business world of chicanery and double-dealings not unlike what probably bankrupted Ben; and Ben's implication of Yella's "pretty legs" having helped her secure the Hannover job are echoed by both Philipp's impression of her future employer, Dr. Schmidt-Ott, and the slimy doctor's own actions. Most of all, her notions of what belongs on this earth and what might pertain to another realm become decidedly fuzzy. Take, for example, her long stare at a kimonoed housewife and her child bidding farewell to a million-dollar husband on the driveway of their million-dollar home. This moment's inclusion early on in Yella's journey may simply manifest her wishes for a new life, but later developments suggest something far more sinister.  

It is to be expected, I suppose, that some critics have considered Yella an anti-capitalism parable; others, with no greater originality, have smugly pointed out Wittenberge's easternness and Hannover's unbroken alliance with the West. While there is some truth to these interpretations, they are hopelessly inferior to what we may term a grim character study. Why grim? Interestingly enough, the more we see of Yella, who evinces at times a doe-like quality, the less we like her. She is hard and cruel to the series of tribunals (in the form of Philipp's business partners) who, wishing to judge and dismiss her as a woman and possibly as an East German, are invariably humiliated by her methods. Once she consents to Philipp's skulduggery, she fails a test of confidence, which could spell death among thieves with an honor code. And while we do feel sorry for her when Ben reappears, more than once, to convey his understanding that the couple should reunite immediately, we also begin to suspect something deeper at work here. When Philipp informs our heroine that "a large garage, a green jaguar, kids, and a house in the suburbs" could never interest him ("What interests you, then?" asks Yella.  "Precisely not that," is the magnificent response), one has the feeling he is speaking for both of them. In fact, Philipp is quickly surpassed by his protégée in ruthlessness, as evidenced by the film's closing scenes. There is also the much belabored matter of the flashbacks Yella endures; water in particular seems to behave unusually in her presence, and in the distance she occasionally hears the caws of raptorial birds. So you may wonder why Yella never quite manages to change out of that lovely red blouse. You may also ask yourself why her last name is Fichte.

Saturday
Oct102015

Barbara

Until telepathy becomes a human trait, we will always retain the freedom to think of whom and what we choose. We can be restricted in where we go, what we read, even to whom we speak; but no oppressive government – and the history of human governance is merely the chronicle of these tyrannies’ demise – has as yet succeeded in fully breaching our inner securities. We have assisted them, however, by doing it ourselves: we have succumbed, and comprised, and relented, all for the sake of the thin hope that the future couldn’t possibly be as grim (as some, unfortunately bereft  of irony, have commented: we have helped lay the bricks to our own prisons). But like in any unholy cult of personality or citizenship, sacrifices for some preposterous common aim are expected, sacrifices which oftentimes assume the shape of our nearest and dearest. And soon we find we have betrayed our most intimate circles solely to elude our own destruction. An appropriate preamble to this fine film.

The year is 1980 and our titular female is Dr. Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss), late of Berlin’s renowned Charité hospital and now ensconced in a less glamorous, rural setting not far from this city. Our first glimpse of Dr. Wolff is on a lonely bench, smoking as she always seems to be doing (in one scene she studies a serum beneath a microscope while still holding a gasper aloft), her eyes determined not to divulge their inklings. “She’s always like that,” says an unmistakable voice. “If she were six years old, you’d say she was sulky.” The you invoked is Dr. André Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld) who, while casually spying on his newest physician, is also considering other matters: her intelligence, her vulnerability, and, of course, the fact that, despite her jagged edges, she is gracile and pretty. The unmistakable voice belongs to a beady-eyed man called Schütz (Rainer Bock), and his agenda will resemble the agendas of so many other unmistakable operatives who bide their time waiting, as it were, for others to make mistakes. A wrinkle in his otherwise straitlaced story will surface much later on, one which might explain why so many characters in the credits share his surname. For the nonce, however, his purpose is clear: Barbara Wolff is under surveillance for having sought work in the West, a crime whose punishment will not involve a conventional jail, but the isolation and obscurity of the country doctor. Schütz burdens Reiser with this information and in so doing makes him an accomplice – although in East Germany the number of such abettors was so enormous that Reiser is in no way remarkable. Furnished with this subterfuge from the opening scene, we have few illusions about what Reiser may or may not suspect; but like so many others recruited or press-ganged into intelligence work, he develops a certain sympathy towards his mark. That is why when Barbara glides by a cafeteria table in utter ignoration of her colleagues, he decides to give her a ride home and explain the lay of land. "You shouldn't cordon yourself off that way," he tells her (Sie sollten sich nicht so separieren), as people here are "very sensitive," especially towards someone once employed at the most famous hospital of the most famous divided city in the world. Compared to such a person "they would feel second class" (Sie fühlen sich bald zweite Klasse), to which Barbara inquires whether Reiser's opting for the bourgeois separieren (instead of, say, the proletarianly Teutonic trennen) comprises his own attempt not to sound "second class." That Reiser also finds her house without having asked for directions disabuses Barbara of any last hope that an unmistakable plan is afoot.  

While references to class distinctions and the so-called "second world" are hardly coincidental, mere minutes into Barbara two potential storylines have already been eliminated: the boilerplate melodrama of a shy and successful outsider pigeonholed by locals as a snob, and the cloak-and-dagger oneupmanship of the standard issue spy thriller. Instead, we are obliged to examine closely our two protagonists, who are both caregivers and victims – as well as in each other's way, if you know what I mean. Barbara withdraws to her modest abode complete with untuned piano, a shortcoming not lost on Reiser, who uses his connections to send for a tuner. With that tuner comes a written report that might terrify the average burgher; at least, so we think given the previous scene's confession as to how Reiser, a gifted physician in his own right, came to this hinterland. Barbara listens with like incredulity to this story and Reiser's dilettantish theory about this much-discussed painting; only this Russian tale will finally convince her of her colleague's desires, and at this point it might be all too late. Too late? It gives nothing away to reveal that Barbara is precisely what she appears to be: that is, a flight risk. She has burn-upon-reading notices and other sensitive materials which she hides in her stovepipe, a series of remote drop-off points, and, most importantly perhaps, a lascivious and affluent boyfriend, Jörg (Mark Waschke), who cannot wait to export her into his Western world where she no longer has to play doctor and "can sleep in every day." During a hotel tryst with Jörg, the latter's fellow interloper beds Steffi (Susanne Bormann), a young East German whose cries of lust literally come from the other side of a wall – behind which, of course, lies paradise. As Steffi asks Barbara her tastes in a wedding ring catalogue – Jörg's friend has already made promises of the unkeepable kind – Barbara cannot help but stare at this simple, desperate girl who would love to sleep in every day, provided that day does not rise too far to the East. There are also the ethical diversions supplied by two sick teenagers, Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) and Mario (Jannik Schümann), one of whom is suicidal and likely brain-damaged, the other bent on escaping a work camp that cannot possibly exist anymore in the great civilization called Europe. That bedside Barbara reads to Stella from this book instead of this one should tell us all we need to know about their relationship.

The brilliance of Petzold’s film lies not only in the two protagonists’ mutual misgivings, but in how their intuitions continue to twist their fate. Privy to Dr. Wolff’s plans, as they are slowly unfurled, and to the fact that Reiser knows of her past indiscretions, we still sense that Barbara very slowly comes to trust or at least to understand her colleague. Yet it is Reiser who remains the unknown quantity. Blubbery, fuzzy-featured, and all too keen on impressing a Berliner, his acts of kindness may be more acting than beneficence (at junctures we also wonder whether he knows too much about Stella's personal history). In one scene, as Barbara appears to be asleep, he scrutinizes her Western cigarettes, and we cannot tell whether fear, admiration, or duty to report such contraband brings a smile to his face. Then at the very middle of Barbara, Reiser will deride her West German currency, leading to their first joint bout of laughter: they have become allies, even if the goal of their alliance is not yet clear (at another confederative moment Reiser will switch, likewise without precedent, to the informal du). They pedal their bikes together just like you're supposed to do in a romance and briefly seem far away from their drab reality; he invites her to "the most beautiful place I know," male shorthand for a proposition; and claiming she hates the sea, she retreats to her piano and her effortless talent. But it is another scene, one in which Barbara finds Reiser with a very unexpected patient, that shunts her down a track of fateful decision. And what about that odd gift, a bountiful basket of vegetables, which all tidily resolve into one tasty dish? Perhaps pure chance, even if chance may be minimized in a realm of unmistakable aims. And after all, what is life if not a few too many coincidences?

Thursday
Jul242014

Ghosts (Gespenster)

You need not be a parent to understand the concern – the hourly concern – with a child's well-being. These feelings are naturally more acute when the children are younger, more vulnerable, more helpless against the tides of man and machine that conspire to end our days. But they do not abate. If it is true that we always view our children in their eternal innocence, as perfect little mammals and miracles, then we do not rest as they age and take life into their own soft hands. Life is short enough without our worries about someone whose existence we determined and began; life is long enough to hope that they will be healthy, happy, and capable of fulfilling every molecule of their potential. And what if the unthinkable occurs due to our own negligence? What if cutting a corner results not in time regained but hell released? Such is the baleful lot of a character in this film.

We begin in Germany with a handsome, middle-aged fellow in an expensive German car listening to this work. That Bach's cantata treats of affliction, of the endless suffering of those who believe and are not believed in, of those who have lost and can never recover, is not insignificant. But before we can wonder about this man's aims, we are taken to a mildly littered public park and the juvenile delinquents tasked with maintaining Germany's immaculateness. Here we find Nina (Julia Hummer), who does not meet many, if any modern film heroine criteria. She is not attractive, intelligent, self-aware, confident, or interesting; if we were to dub her average, we might insult the greater part of our own populaces. No, Nina's fate is wretched, even if she inhabits arguably the most comfortable of earth's regions. As we first see her, her attention is attracted to something almost out of view: a woman being manhandled by two stronger beings. Our initial impression – which will, in no small irony, turn out to be rather fitting – is of a prisoner herded away by the law's long and persuasive arms. Nina's intuition, however, informs her otherwise, and we follow our joint quarry just out of the camera's view, just around a corner or tree, just enough steps in front of us to prevent identification of what is taking place. Our camera will enjoy this frustrating distance as a vibrant metaphor for our plot, which I cannot wholly conceal, as that renders a review nearly impossible. What we can say is that Nina pursues this trio, finds in the rough a very fake diamond – in this case, an earring – interrupts what might have been a hideous crime, and alters, if for a day or two, her miserable existence. And for a day or two she will have the companionship of Toni (Sabine Timoteo).     

Toni may be the exact opposite of Nina, or she simply may be cloaking her insecurities in masculine bile. Her later actions suggest she has long since accustomed herself to humiliation, subordinance, and dependence; in other words, she is a perfect exemplification of a drug addict. This point is only made implicitly: her homelessness, shoplifting, pathological lies, and flailing power line of sexuality all bespeak terrible thirsts. But it is when we remember the first scene, when two ruffians who might have easily taken her honor take instead a few shots to her ribs, that we recognize the indebted pickpocket or substance abuser. Why doesn't Nina see all this? It is one of the film's finest conceits that Nina – who is neither a genius nor a credulist – does see it. She quickly identifies Toni as trouble yet wants to help her in the way that no one has ever bothered to help a teenage orphan who picks up trash in Berlin parks. Interposed with this Sapphic tale is the errand of Pierre, our opening scene's driver (Aurélien Recoing), which turns out to be the fetching of his wife Françoise (Marianne Basler) from a Berlin sanatorium. Françoise has been very sick for, well, about fifteen years now, when she committed the inexpiable sin of leaving her toddler daughter in a shopping cart for a minute unattended. Common sense screams that no one who really loves her child would ever do this; nevertheless, the warning persists for the unthinkable exception that for every parent is so very thinkable. Since the pain of such a mistake is insuperable, Françoise comes to Berlin more than once every year armed with forensic sketches of what her daughter would look like. Near our film's end, we are shown these sketches as well as the security camera footage from that Berlin supermarket and it curdles our blood. We tremble at the predator's alacrity, as well as at the likelihood that this is what Françoise sees every night when she tries so pathetically to fall asleep. 

How this childless French couple's story intertwines with that of a German orphan will not surprise even the most callow of viewers, but Petzold sees most plots as a contrivance. What matters to him, and should matter to the discerning admirer of his cinema, is how he works almost exclusively from a woman's point of view while avoiding the topoi typically reserved for females (if those subjects do not immediately spring to mind, you are reading the right pages). Perhaps for that very reason were critics not fond of Ghosts, which offers merely what its title promises: lonely strands of spectral existences, figures bound to the belief, as Petzold himself once observed, that "love can bring them back to life." Numerous vignettes show us what exactly these characters will do for love. There is an ex gratia breakfast that ends in tragedy; a remarkable soliloquy at a moment we could not possibly have expected; and a long and beautiful march out of the asylum, with a nurse opening a series of doors, one heavier than the next, then looking back at Françoise with mounting resentment. There also obtains, throughout our film, an equable camera as curious and desperate as the characters it stalks. But strangely enough, the most desperate is not Françoise but Toni. Timoteo's eyes and gait alone say everything she could ever express, and as a dingy, gamblesome, unabashed seducer, if one who must think ahead for her next pillow and meal, she is hypnotic. So when Françoise wrongly identifies the Bachian cantata's conductor as Gardiner, not Richter (as Pierre gently corrects her), should we see any symbolism in the German name's triumph over the Latinate? Or in the fact that Richter is German for judge, both the terrestrial and the heavenly? For some, indeed, there is no end to their affliction.