[Last Films I Watch] Barbara (2012) & Phoenix (2014)

Barbara  Phoenix poster

Title: Barbara
Year: 2012
Country: Germany
Language: German
Genre: Drama
Director: Christian Petzold
Writers:
Christian Petzold
Harun Farocki
Music: Stefan Will
Cinematography: Hans Fromm
Cast:
Nina Hoss
Ronald Zehrfeld
Mark Waschke
Jasna Fritzi Bauer
Christina Hecke
Rainer Bock
Rosa Enskat
Susanne Bormann
Peter Benedict
Jannik Schümann
Alicia von Rittberg
Rating: 7.0/10

Barbara 2012

Title: Phoenix
Year: 2014
Country: Germany, Poland
Language: German, English
Genre: Drama, War
Director: Christian Petzold
Writers:
Christian Petzold
Harun Farocki
Hubert Monteilhet
Music: Stefan Will
Cinematography: Hans Fromm
Cast:
Nina Hoss
Ronald Zehrfeld
Nina Kunzendorf
Imogen Kogge
Michael Maertens
Uwe Preuss
Kirsten Block
Jeff Burrell
Megan Gay
Rating: 7.8/10

Phoenix 2014

A double-bill of contemporary Germany’s leading director Christian Petzold’s most recent films BARBARA and PHOENIX, both are executed with the same team and stars Nina Hoss, Petzold’s longtime muse and Ronald Zehrfeld as two leads, punctiliously examine the mentality of German people in the post-WWII era.

In BARBARA, the locale is a rural surrounding of 1980s East Germany, Hoss is the titular Barbara, a doctor newly banished to a small hospital due to some unexplained collusion with West Germany, Barbara’s frosty bearing means she is not here to make friends, and her condition is sympathising although the hostility and vigilance between her and her colleagues is mutual, but she is also constantly under surveillance from the authority after hours, she even has to endure the humiliation of her body being manually checked each time when they launch a fine-tooth comb in her small unadorned apartment. However Barbara has her own secret, she has a West German lover Jörg (Waschke) who apparently is a rich business man and planning to rescue her from the repressive and authoritarian East Germany, Jörg even comes to visit her frequently and they engage in some uninhibited carnal knowledge.

Back in the hospital, meanwhile, a palpable comradeship (or romance even) is hatching between Barbara and her fellow doctor André (Zehrfeld), who has been demoted due to a medical accident, through their medical cares towards young patients Stella (Bauer) and Mario (Schümann). When Barbara finally secures an opportunity to flee to the westernised civilisation she has been longing for all these years, a sudden change alters her entire plan and she has to make a big sacrifice to do the right thing.

PHOENIX sets its story right after the WWII, Hoss is Nelly, a disfigured concentration-camp survivor who has done a facial reconstruction surgery, she decides to look for her husband Johannes (Zehrfeld), whom her friend Lene (Kunzendorf) accuses as a traitor, because it is him, who has sold Nelly out to Nazi in the first place. Nelly tracks him down in a club named “Phoenix” where the former musician Johannes works as a busboy, then comes the pulpy part, Johannes cannot recognise Nelly, his presumed dead wife, yet he offers her an opportunity to half of Nelly’s inheritance if she is willing to act as his wife, and pretends that she miraculously returns from the camp so they can claim the inheritance. This premise is a tricky one, in one hand it is really far-fetched and prompts many reasonable questions of Johannes’ peculiar behaviour in his plan, how can a man fails to recognise his wife although her face is altered, but I suppose not a lot (especially compared with Pedro Almodóvar’s THE SKIN I LIVE IN 2011), since Nelly wants the surgery to keep her look instead of changing into a new one. Especially when Nelly shows the exact handwriting of his wife, dubiety has never crossed his mind, not to mention to notice the number on her arm from the death camp or to do a little bit of homework to the uncannily similar impostor; on the other hand, Johannes’ careless behaviour may just pinpoint his mindset at then, he refuses to believe Nelly is still alive, he is deeply ashamed of his betrayal and subconsciously he evades to face the music, like Nelly, he is also a soul tormented by war, a commoner’s degradation under the extreme times.

As for Nelly, viewers are easy to take side of Lene, who gets vexed and disappointed by her obstinacy of refusing accepting Johanne’s perfidy, her capitulation to his ludicrous bidding and even wallows in the game, nevertheless, thanks to Hoss’ coherently gripping performance (includes her magnificent rendition of SPEAK LOW in the key moment) and Petzold’s sublime conceit in the coda, PHOENIX doesn’t ends up like a common-or-garden revenge thriller, instead it transcends to a soul-pulverising revelation which potently justifies why film is such an important form of art for us, in that moment, it shatters all the negativity amassed before and renders audience the catharsis we are not expected to experience!

By comparison, BARBARA doesn’t give the same effect, and its auxiliary stories about Stella and Mario serve only as mere plot device, too cursory and generic besides Barbara’s own hazardous predicament, which validly curtails the repercussion in the finale which blatantly beckons that let’s just sing a tribute to Barbara’s altruistic loftiness!

In any rate Nina Hoss is plain great in both films, stern-looking and standoffish in BARBARA, she is a woman withdrawn to herself completely, anger, hatred, sympathy and strong sense of responsibility as a doctor, all hidden under her poker face, it is her weapon to survive in the regime, only occasionally she reveals herself during the trysts with Jörg, until she finds the same frequency with André, maybe a more suitable match for her. There is still hope in the Communist regime. Whereas in PHOENIX, she transforms herself into a perpetually petrified victim, no one can imagine what she has to suffer to be alive until this point, her sole emotional anchor is the aim to find her husband back, still she has to deal with a cruel fact which will destroy all her hope. Two vastly different character, she nails them both!

Ronald Zehrfeld, the kindly-looking, robust German actor, constitutes a great co-existence with Hoss, either as a confidentiality-divulging doctor tries to woo his fellow doctor or a desperate husband too blind to accept the haunting fact that his presumably-dead wife is back to reprise her role for a second time. Also worth mentioning is Nina Kunzendorf (looks like a thinner version of Minnie Driver), her understated love towards Nelly is subtly hinted and she exits with an equally memorable impression as the disillusioned fighter cannot adapt a new life to move on after the manmade calamity.

The final consensus is that Petzold is a master-class filmmaker who has the patience to muse on the aftermath falls upon people by warfare and sociological shift, a promising story-teller can conceal his perspicacious insight beneath an engaging narrative, also an actor’s director, who can tap potential out of his close-knit cast, an auteur on the horizon, is the least we can hope for his future!

Oscar 2012 - Barbara Oscar 2014 - Phoenix

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