PhoenixChristian Petzold (Ger 2014)Nina Hoss; Ronald Zehrfeld;
Viewed: Tyneside Cinema 12 May 2015; Ticket: £8.50
The history of post war film is riddled with bad movies that take their cue from the Holocaust and exploiting the Camps as either foreground or background for cheap melodrama.Pontecorvo’s Kapo (1960) earnteditsellf the gong from Jacques Rivette for worst shot in the history of cinema, a zoom into the hand of heroine dying on the wire barbed mesh of the camp fence.
Rivette’s point here is a particular contempt for using the Concentration Camp as an indulgence of individualistic fate.A cheap trick to extort a reflux of emotion from an audience preconditioned to expressive emotive venting by the calamity of this collective disaster. When the documentary evidence is so strong and well known, when the facts of the mass exterminations in the Nazi work and death camps already overwhelm response,anything other than an approach that transcends the individual subjectivity flirts with attracting brazen contempt from both the victims and the survivors, who include us as mute and late witnesses.
As with Pavilowski’s recent movie Ida (2013), Chriastian Petzold’s Phoenixdoes little more than use the Holocaust background as an exploitation device against which to set a melodrama centred on an identity crisis.The core script driver in both Ida and Phoenix is a narrative process in which two women, the eponymous Ida and Nellie have to figure out the meaning of their lives.In both these stories the Nazi death camps serve as a mechanism, a sort of spring loaded contraption for depositing their protagonists out of the past into their present situation, from where the respective scripts pick up the story.
There is nothing in the narrative structure of either film that requires such a strong determining force as the Nazi camps.Any number of back stories would have worked fine.In fact the camps, as the back story element, in both films are overdeterministic of both Ida’s and Nellie’s situation.Overdeterministic meaning that the enormity of the evil that both the camps and the culture of death unleashed by the Nazis, overwhelms the victims.They are as if emptied out. They have no words. Unable to respond they are incapable of present assimilation of the enormity of their situation and what has happened to them. In both ‘Ida’ and ‘Phoenix’ to countervail the actual affect of the experience of evil, both directors resort to dishonest scriptingto rescue their subjects, Ida and Nellie from the maw of history.
What we see in both Ida and Phoenix is soap operas for the timesIda projected in academy aspect with black and white print has a strong retro look, that works to disguise the plot mechanics.These mechanics comprise of Ida learning about her real Jewish ancestry guided by her maternal aunt (who commits suicide), and subsequently her flirting with modernism before returning to the fold of the Church. Ida is like a machine.We watch her experience all these situations but we never see what she sees. The film avoids relations asthe script is like a walk through installation.The film attracts our gaze not our understanding, as Pavilowski is unable to deal with the overwhelming actuality of legitimised murder of Jews in Poland under the Nazis.
Phoenix amounts to no more than a ‘betrayal situation’.For some reason Petzold has wanted to give ‘betrayal’ experience a sort of borrowed legitimacy by exploiting the idea of a camp survivor.
Interestingly I saw one reviewer who compared Petzold to Hitchcock!Desperate stuff!Of course Petzold in fact honours Hitchcock only in the breech.Petzold shows no sign of understanding the key element of much of Hitch’s scripting.Petzold has forgotten ‘the McGuffin’ a concept Hitch used time and again in his movies.The McGuffin kick starts the narrative. It is a device.A device that leads into the core of the story.It is not the core of the plotting, which is always in relations.As the film developsThe McGuffin seldom retains its importance or centrality.
So Nellie’s disfigurement is a McGuffin.What should then become the focus of the film is the psychological interplay, the relations between Johnny and Nellie.Instead Nellie’s disfigurement remains at the heart of the film.Her disfigurement becomes an increasingly unwieldy fabrication, played out by the actors in a sort of realist style that becomes less and less convincing as they struggle tomaintain the illusion that he cannot recognise her.The Phoenix scenario never takes up the idea of relations between Nellie and Johnny.Instead it becomes bogged down in gestural detail as Nellie goes through the tedious motions of unconvincingly impersonating herself.
Phoenix comes to a dead end halfway through failing to develop the scenario, to take the film onto another level: the relations that should have been the real core of the movie.No relations between Johnny and Nellie, no tension. No relations no states of mind: the film slides into indifference in its performances.In particular Ronald Zehrfeld, as Johnny, is unfortunate.He acts as if he doesn’t know what to do, or how or why he should be doing whatever it is that he is supposed to do. And Petzold doesn’t seem to have been much help.
I suspect that Rivette would hold Ida and Phoenix in something of the same disdain as he felt for Kapo.