A review of Francois Ozon’s latest film Frantz for Wales Arts Review
Victoria has been winning plaudits left, right and centre since its release primarily for its cinematography: yes, this is one of those one-shot films, and no, it’s not a fake one like Birdman, but a genuine, honest-to-God movie done in one single take. The question of course, is whether that adds anything to the film. It does elevate a fairly standard crime thriller into something that feels more participatory, as if the audience is a direct but silent participant in the action. It is perhaps a bit too long (probably a result of the characters having to travel to the next location in between scenes, something that editing obviously cuts out), but a fine film it is nevertheless, held together in large part by Laia Costa’s effortless and natural performance as the titular character.
As far as films about disintegrating marriages and the ever-increasing distance between former lovers goes, Possession is certainly one of the most intense and terrifying, evidently a big thematic influence on Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. Isabelle Adjani’s lead performance is a thing to behold, but so is Sam Neill’s more subtle, introspective performance, easy to miss amongst the sheer batshit madness of Andrzej Żuwalski’s imagery and disentangled, ever-shifting camerawork. It’s all a bit too much to take in at first viewing, especially given the film’s heavyweight reputation, but Possession remains like few other films out there.
Anarchistic, nihilistic, and misanthropic, a macho, chest-beating war film Cross of Iron is not. That’s unsurprising considering it’s one of the few WWII films to focus on the German side, and whilst you could arguably make a case that the film does ignore important aspects of the war on the Eastern Front, such as its sheer brutality and of course the decimation of Jewish and minority populations, I sense that such matters were not Sam Peckinpah’s concern in directing this film. Rather, his aim is focused squarely on the sheer pointlessness of military rank, order, and authority, and dear me, is his aim accurate and true. Behind the sheer bloodiness within the film (unsurprising for a Peckinpah picture) lies one of the great director’s most psychologically deep works, but it is a work that could not be complete without the strength given to it by its superb cast; James Coburn in particular gives his role far more depth than just your average “tough guy”.
The films of German director Christian Petzold are enigmatic, slowly-paced, and thought-provoking. In Barbara, Nina Hoss’ titular character is exiled to a small country hospital for making a request to leave the country that angers the Stasi, and there she begins to make plans to escape. However, she develops a relationship with another doctor, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), who himself has a history with the police, but has opted to become an informant so as to keep working as a doctor. With wonderful pastoral cinematography that accentuates Hoss’ sly frame against the sea and the woods, suggesting she is little more than a flower at the mercy of larger forces, Barbara is a detail-rich investigation about an individual’s quest for freedom pitted against her duty and her humanity. Excellent.
Head-On could have easily been a preposterously over-the-top, garish, misery-porn melodrama which simply wallows in the misery of its characters – certainly the second half of the film feels that way at times. Director Fatih Akin’s screenplay is often unstructured and wayward, recalling the worst excesses of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s work in its occasionally aimless misanthropy. Yet it succeeds, in many ways in spite of itself. The film’s mixture of Turkish and German cultures, its varied and brilliant soundtrack and most of all, the astounding performances of its two stars, Birol Unel and Sibel Kekilli ensure that Head-On remains engrossing and engaging throughout, despite its drawbacks.
Werner Herzog’s film about capital punishment and the effect it has on the people around it and affected by it is one of his best documentaries to date. Into the Abyss starts slowly, taking us step-by-step through the horrific triple murder committed by its two central figures, Jason Burkett and Michael Perry, the latter being interviewed mere days before his execution. Herzog’s questions are simple, but always straight to the point. Despite the lack of education of many of his interviewees (one admits he didn’t learn to read until well into adulthood), he draws from them an especially despairing vision of incarceration, mindless violence, and murder. Although the film is patchy in parts, perhaps due to the fact that Herzog was working from only a few hours total of interview footage, it is nevertheless extremely powerful.
Few visitors outside of a select group of scientists are allowed into the magnificent Chauvet Cave at all, which contains the world’s oldest known cave paintings dating back some 30,000 years. Werner Herzog, being Werner Herzog, managed to convince the French authorities to let him film inside the fragile and ancient cavern, and the result is astounding. Cave of Forgotten Dreams spends long stretches simply basking in the beauty and detail of these images, and such a film would have been good enough, but Herzog, as ever, probes and questions his subject to penetrate beyond simple documentation. Instead of creating a documentary trying to explain the cave paintings, Herzog accepts that we will never be able to know what life was like for these long-vanished authors. All we are left with is the tiniest traces of their existence, and that in itself we ought to treasure.
Phoenix is a surprisingly in-depth and considerate study of identity and the relationship between two people that, unfortunately, is almost hidden away by a silly, hokey plot. It takes its time to settle, with the first half-hour or so being at times quite gratingly stale as well as ridiculous, but once the film reaches the heart of its intentions, it quickly becomes a much more intimate, interesting film. There are more than a few echoes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, something which has been picked up on by many other reviewers, but to that I would also add the film noir classic The Third Man, what with both films being set in Germanic cities still suffocating under post-war rubble, and their respective plots revolving around people who are thought-to-be-dead-but-actually-aren’t, with a certain amount of noirish visuals (only gently pronounced here in Phoenix however).
But first of all I will recount the plot. Granted, it’s far from the most ridiculous plot I’ve ever seen onscreen, but in the context of a European drama made with relatively serious artistic ambitions, it is certainly quite jarring. The story goes that Nelly (Nina Hoss) returns to post-WWII Berlin after barely surviving the Nazi death camps as a Jew and undergoes facial reconstruction surgery, which uhm…turns out to be quite impressive for 2015, let alone 1945. Once she’s recovered, she tracks down her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), but he doesn’t recognise her, although he does notice a similarity. Believing the real Nelly to be dead, he convinces her to pretend to be herself so that he can pick up the inheritance money, leading to constant ‘will-she-won’t-she’ moments as to whether she will eventually reveal that she is in fact herself. Yes, I realise that all this sounds utterly preposterous. Perhaps it’s one of the strengths of Phoenix that it quietly overcomes this pulp fiction plot that feels more at home in a B-movie straight-to-video Face/Off rip-off rather than an immaculate-looking modern European drama.
After all, ultimately it is not what a story is about, but how it is about it. At its heart, Phoenix is a film that is about identity and love. It is about a question posed by many works throughout time. When we love someone, who is it that we love? Do we really love that person, or just an idea of that person? This is a film about a man who has lost his wife, who then finds another person who is very similar to her, and tries to mould her to become what he remembers of his wife. In that sense, there is a thematic line from Phoenix to, of all things, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 sci-fi masterpiece Solaris, which is also a film about a man whose lost wife returns, but is forever locked in as a product of his memories rather than an individual on her own terms.
Where Phoenix differs is that it takes the point-of-view of the woman. Nelly seems too frightened, too traumatised, to be open to Johnny, and not only that she remains deeply in love with him, despite evidence that he may have betrayed her Jewish roots to the Nazis. It is never clear whether he did, nor is it clear whether he’s trying to claim her heritage out of cynicism and hate or just a need for survival in destitute, poverty-ridden post-war Berlin. Subversively, by allowing Johnny to ‘mould’ her into what he remembers of their relationship, Nelly is allowed to see, with none of the hidden motives or restraint we often deploy in relationships to avoid conflict or dissatisfaction, exactly how her husband imagined her. She ‘grows’ back into the role of being herself almost, clawing back her pre-war life. She is able to gain the upper hand precisely because her husband is playing such a completely emotionally open role even as he assumes he is the one in control.
It is this central theme of Phoenix that makes it worth watching. Director Christian Petzold manages the film with a strong narrative precision and focus, bringing us relatively smoothly to the thematic heart of the film whilst slyly making the audience forget about the absurdities of the plot. Most important is the performances he draws out of his two lead actors. Nina Hoss, a regular in Petzold’s films, is utterly astounding, communicating a whole world of trauma in Nelly’s body language without ever speaking about it out loud. She has been getting many of the plaudits the film has received, but credit too should go to Ronald Zehrfeld who has less of a scene-stealing role but is just as equally important. His strong build and physical screen presence suggests a man who has built a wall around himself, and he uses this shield to manipulate others. Slowly however, that wall is chipped away, and Zehrfeld strikes just the right line between the cautious guarded Johnny, and the more open version of him that had disappeared during the war.
Phoenix‘s closing moments are astounding. Though the film as a whole is no brilliant masterpiece, it is a very strong drama, handled strongly by Petzold and his two stars. The plot remains, yes, hokey, and occasionally distracting, but the fact Phoenix overcomes such a grating start is testament to the craft that has gone into making it too.