If there’s one thing I don’t miss about school it’s that queasy feeling you get when you come to class without having done the required reading. Even worse is when you try to do the reading by skimming the chapter at the last minute, possibly on the bus ride on your way, and kind of hope that you can fake it. The only thing that gives me that feeling today is when a seemingly important movie opens up and I don’t feel prepared to address it because I slept on the director’s previous work. That recently happened to me when director Christian Petzold’s Phoenix opened up and I immediately regretted that weekend in early 2013 when I decided to blow off the chance I had to see his international breakthrough Barbara as well as the many chances I to watch it on Netflix in the two ensuing years. So, I ended up literally watching Barbra the day before I saw Phoenix, which wouldn’t be a problem for a normal person, but I generally try to space out my viewing of movies that have common link to let them stew in my head. It was kind of weird seeing the two movies back to back and I want to say from the outset that I really liked Barbra and that Phoenix might have suffered a little bit in comparison.
The film is set in Berlin during the immediate aftermath of World War II and concerns itself with a Jewish woman named Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) who was a somewhat prominent nightclub singer before the war but was eventually sent to the concentration camps. She survived the Holocaust, but her face was disfigured over the course of her time there. She’s smuggled back into Berlin by her friend Lena (Nina Kunzendorf) and gets a cosmetic surgery in an attempt to look as much like her old self as possible but her psychological scars run deeper. She wants to find her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) but doesn’t know where to look and Lena strongly suggests that she doesn’t even try given that Johnny is something of a rake and he may even have played some role in the Nazi’s discovering her location. She is persistent though and eventually finds Johnny, but he still believes she’s dead and assumes that this woman (who looks just a little different because of the surgery) is simply someone who looks a lot like her and Nelly opts not to come out with the truth right away. Soon Johnny enlists Nelly to “pretend” to be his wife so that he can retrieve her money (which would otherwise be inaccessible to him).
Petzold’s last film, Barbara, was a quietly tense movie about a doctor attempting to defect from East Germany to West Germany in the early 1980s and the various quiet indignities involved in life on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. I found that film’s ending to be a bit underwhelming, but otherwise it was a very strong piece of realist cinema with a strong minimalist style. The main connection I see between that film and this new one is that both films are trying to take a slightly unconventional approach into recent German history. This particular film is of course all about national guilt related to the Nazi era but also about how Germany should be viewed from the Jewish perspective in the wake of the Holocaust. One can perhaps view Nelly as a stand-in for all German Jews and Johnny as a stand-in of sorts for the Germans. Johnny liked Nelly during good times and benefited from her skills as a singer and then betrayed her in bad times, much as Germany benefited from Jews during boom times only to turn on them. The question then is how Nelly should respond to that. In essence she is like an abuse victim, one who still frustratingly pines for her abuser even when everyone around her (in this case Lena) says he’s no good for her. So is the movie suggesting that Jews should never forgive Germany? I don’t know about that. That nihilism would seem to clash with what we know about the actual post-war Germany, which as far as I can tell is about as contrite as any nation could possibly be. What’s more, the movie doesn’t seem to view Lena’s brand of unforgiving tough love as being any more healthy for anyone involved than Nelly’s rush to reunite with her traitorous husband.
So there are definitely some interesting thematic things going on in the film but I do think it falters a bit on certain levels of execution that preclude it from greatness. For one, and I know this is shallow, but the movie’s production values seemed a bit lacking to me. I realize that there’s only ever going to be so much money involved in German movies about national guilt, but it’s still a problem that the locales here didn’t really seem appropriately bombed out and you could definitely see where certain compromises were made to accommodate budget limitations. More importantly I kind of feel like Petzold’s realist style clashed a bit with the film’s trappings. Movies about German cabaret lounge singers almost invite a certain tragic romanticism, especially when they contain certain melodramatic elements like the Vertigo invoking high concept here and Petzold never quite knows whether to indulge in this or fight it. I’m also going to say that Nina Hoss’ performance never quite seemed to work for me. She comes of more confused than tortured and just never quite connected.
One other thought I had while watching the movie is that it is perhaps told from the wrong perspective. Imagine another version of the movie that’s told instead from the perspective of the husband rather than the returning wife. I feel like that set-up would have added a dimension of mystery that would have helped out this film’s tonal issues a lot even if it would have made the comparisons to Vertigo even more inevitable. Of course the perspective they did choose probably played into the film’s themes a little better and also has the obvious benefit of not forcing the audience to empathize with an unrepentant asshole, so maybe they made the right choice there. Either way something seems to be missing here. Make no mistake, this is a really good film. There are some really good ideas in it and some very effective scenes but it never quite manages to be that homerun it could have been.
***1/2 out of Four