Toni Erdmann, Directed with an Original Screenplay by Maren Ade


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toni-inesWho is one’s authentic self? The more one considers the influence of language and social customs, the knottier the question becomes. But middle-aged prankster Winfried (Peter Simonischek) slips this philosophical knot. He wishes only to goad his uptight daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), through relentless, embarrassing hijinks, toward adopting a happier, more attentive self.

When Winifried, a grammar-school music teacher, attends a dinner at his ex-wife’s home to see their daughter, a rising star in a powerful consulting company, he barely has an opportunity to speak with her between her urgent phone calls with business associates.

Soon she returns to the backwater of Bucharest, where she sweats to land a deal with a local oil company that will earn her a transfer to a more glamorous post. The bargain: her company will take the opprobrium for outsourcing most of the company’s labor (leaving the locals desperate) in return for a contract.

Uninvited, Winifried visits her in her elegant apartment, overlooking a Romanian favela. A lumbering idealist failure in his daughter’s eyes, he cannot convince her that her striving for success within the pecking order of global capitalism is making her miserable. Hers is a serious case, and calls for stronger measures.

Enter “Toni Erdmann,” Winifried’s alter ego, in false choppers and a shoulder-length wig, dogging his daughter’s steps at meetings, networking events, and receptions and introducing himself as a celebrity life coach (or, alternately, as the German ambassador to Romania) to her puzzled and fascinated friends, colleagues, and clients. As she grovels before bigwigs, her father becomes the witness of her humiliation.

Acting as a comically grotesque mirror for her alienation, Winifried uses his kook disguise to persuade Ines to doff her corporate drag. She does not do so without a fight; even in amorous play with her lover (Trystan Pütter), she remains fully clothed. And when she bloodies her blouse while puncturing a blister in order to cram an injured foot into pumps, she swaps tops with her aspiring assistant (Ingrid Bisu) rather than wear this stigmata of her humanity into the boardroom.

Director Maren Ade is too sophisticated to imply that if Ines just got naked, she would become the adult version of the winsome little girl who learned to ride a bike from her dad. So when, between the pressures of her father’s love and the expectations of her profession, Ines does finally crack, hosting a “naked party,” no one knows what to do with their nudity except to carry their gift bags strategically. “Toni Erdmann” chooses to crash this party in his most outlandish disguise yet.

Ines cannot get back to the garden, but she does come home to Germany, at least temporarily, to help her father pack up the house of her grandmother, who has died. While they are goofing around on the patio—Ines making a gallant effort—Winifried goes to fetch his camera, supposedly, leaving her suspended between roles, wearing a funny hat and false teeth, listening for the sound of his return. Or just listening.


Julieta, Directed by Pedro Almodóvar


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Two actresses play the title role in Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, one before and one after the central catastrophe in the eponymous heroine’s life.

Beginning the tale in medias res, Emma Suárez plays Julieta as a survivor of personal tragedies, attempting to rebuild her life with her attentive lover, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). Meeting an old acquaintance on the street in Madrid, she is jolted into a remembrance of the past and its defeats.

In the extended flashback that follows, Adriana Ugarte plays Julieta as a young literature teacher who meets a handsome fisherman, Xoan (Daniel Grao), while traveling on a train. Brought together by the shocking suicide of a fellow passenger, the two make love, then continue to their separate destinations.

Not long after, Xoan writes to Julieta. Pregnant with his child, she arrives in his village to find that his wife, who has been in a coma, has just died. Julieta and Xoan form a joyous union under the jealous eyes of the housekeeper, Marian (Rossy de Palma), a Mrs. Danvers type who disapproves of her modern new mistress. Marian becomes devoted, however, to the couple’s daughter, Antia (Priscilla Delgado), who grows into a lissome adolescent occupied with shooting hoops with her best friend, Beatriz (Sara Jiménez).

One day while Antia is at summer camp, Marian reveals to Julieta that Xoan has slept with a former lover while living with Julieta, and Julieta and Xoan quarrel. Before they can make up, he goes out in his boat, is caught in a storm, and drowns.

Julieta returns to Madrid, where she is cared for by Antia and Beatriz. It is here that the unblemished Adriana Ugarte is replaced in the title role by Emma Suárez, Julieta aged and unstrung by loss.

But Julieta’s misfortunes are not at an end. Antia disappears, severing all ties with her mother. Her actions are mysterious, possibly a reaction to Marian’s telling her of mother’s role in her father’s death. Or perhaps Antia is impelled by other, barely traceable, sources of guilt and desperation.

Unable to recapture her daughter, Julieta gradually mends—until the chance encounter years later on the street in Madrid. The long-lost acquaintance she meets—twice, in fact—is the grown-up Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), the great friend of Antia’s youth. In their conversations, Beatriz reveals that, in the course of a love affair between them, Antia had become consumed with a fanatical spirituality that drove them apart.

Julieta once more descends into depression, giving up her relationship with Lorenzo to wander dazed about the city. Watching protectively from a distance, he is able to save her when she steps in front of a moving car.

Antia, the progeny of free spirits, seems to be her mother’s opposite, cold and unbending—the perfect weapon to wound the grieving Julieta. But a subplot indicates that she is in fact her mother’s daughter. For years, Julieta has snubbed her own father for forming a lasting liaison with his maid while his bedridden wife was still alive.

The source materials for Julieta are three stories—not one—by Alice Munro. As a result of being a mélange, the film’s plot is propelled by collisions, coincidences, impulses, and reversals that are often outside the characters’ conscious control. The director seems to have left these rough edges in his collage to create texture and openings for interpretation. What is the significance, for example, of the majestic stag loping beside the train on the night that Julieta and Xoan meet? How is it that Julieta and Ava, Xoan’s former mistress, reconcile and become fast friends? And how fascinating that the adult Antia, whose defection plays such an important role in Julieta’s life, is represented only in snippets of dialog by her former lover, Beatriz. In spite of this very lifelike portrayal of ambiguous motivations (for human beings rarely act for a single reason alone), guided by Almodóvar’s humanism, these characters’ drama must finally revolve toward forgiveness and reconciliation.

Being 17, Directed by André Téchiné


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The director André Téchiné, now in his 70s, makes wondrous films about young people. In Wild Reeds, a band of friends sort through unrequited love, sexual awakening, and clashing attitudes inherited from their parents toward the Algerian revolution. In Being 17, Téchiné tells a similarly nuanced story about young people trying to gather the strands of their identities.

His two teenage protagonists, Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) and Thomas (Corentin Fila), live in the French mountains, one among the peaks and one in the town below. Damien, the city mouse, lives with his mother, Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain), a doctor; his father is a military pilot serving overseas, possibly in Afghanistan. When the three of them Skype together, their mutual affection is clear. Though temporarily separated, they are a happy family, and Damien’s nascent gay identity is not an issue.

The family dynamic of Thomas, the country mouse, is more complex. He and his parents farm livestock and produce. Does his father, Jacques, seem a little less attuned to his son than Damien’s dad because of differences in parenting norms between urban and rural families? Or because Thomas is adopted? Hard to tell. What is certain is that Thomas fears that the imminent birth of a child to his mother, Christine, will underscore his adopted status.

The boys’ first encounter is in the classroom in town, when Thomas trips Damien on his way to his seat after reciting a Symboliste poem. He later claims that he did it because he finds Damien pretentious, but there are other reasons, as well. The two of them are the last to be picked for sports teams, Damien because he is slight and Thomas because he is an unknown quantity, a relative stranger who hikes and buses down the mountain each day to attend school and immediately returns to his farming chores when the school day is done. Thomas, who is both virile and unsophisticated, no doubt resents being associated with the less athletic Damien.

While the film is closer to Damien and Marianne, who richly enjoy each other’s company, eating and chatting together with genuine affinity, it does not stint Thomas’ life on the little farm surrounded by forest. His fascination with nature—he stalks bear and swims naked in a winter lake, alone, in secret, at night—is his equivalent of Damien’s Symboliste poem. That Thomas is black adds to his uniqueness in this alpine idyll, but is never problematized, to Téchiné’s credit.

The boys are forced together when Marianne becomes Christine’s doctor and places her in a nursing home in order to preserve the pregnancy. She insists that Thomas come to live with Damien and her in town until the baby is born. In essence, Thomas is adopted again, and this time it is the biological child, Damien, who is threatened, even as he begins to fall in love with his rival.

Enemies, brothers, lovers, friends consoling each other for losses and absences, in bed or boxing in a field, Damien and Thomas grapple each other like creatures being born.

Certain Women, Directed by Kelly Reichardt, Adapted from Short Stories by Maile Meloy


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In the first of three episodes in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women,  a man suffering brain damage from a work injury is futilely attempting to sue his former employer. He uses the case to try to press a friendship on his small-town Montana lawyer, Laura Wells (Laura Dern), who rebuffs him.

Laura is as level-headed as her client is disturbed, but also just as lonely. When he lands in jail after taking her hostage in a stand-off with the police, she visits him (bearing milkshakes, as Laura Dern would). He has caused her nothing but problems, but she has her reasons for sticking around: atonement for a failure of justice, simple kindness, and (after being jilted by her married lover) a need to connect with someone, anyone, who desires her company.

In the film’s second vignette, Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) also copes with a man whom it is easy to see as a victim. To construct her dream house of native materials, she and her husband, Ryan (James Le Gros), must wrest some coveted blocks of sandstone from an elderly neighbor. The old man has done nothing with the stones, the remains of a demolished school that once stood on his property. But they belong to him and to the history and culture of the town, into which the Lewises and their notions about authentic architecture do not quite fit.

Ryan’s building of the house for his wife is compensation for his catting around town (with the lawyer Laura West, for one) and general uselessness. He leaves the figurative heavy lifting to Gina when it comes to asking the neighbor for the sandstone. She does, in the course of an awkward conversation underscoring the old man’s frailty and attachment to the past. The haul is moved to the Lewis’ campsite, leaving the viewer to decide whether Gina’s appreciation of the sandstone, not for its nostalgic value but for its intrinsic beauty, makes her its rightful owner. If nothing else, she, unlike Laura West, shows that a woman can take as well as give.

In the third of the film’s stories, Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a farmer, falls in love with Beth (Kristen Stewart), a freshly-minted lawyer teaching a continuing education course at the local college. To make the class, Beth drives four hours from Billings and back once a week. After each class, she bolts a burger, with Jamie gazing on appreciatively, before heading out of town.

The rhythms of the ardent yet placid Jamie and jittery Beth could not be more different, and the teacher shows no signs of returning the crush. In fact, halfway through the course, she turns over the class to another teacher, evidently without giving Jamie a thought. But when Jamie makes the drive to Billings to say goodbye, their brief, discreet parking lot conversation illuminates both Jamie’s gentle, forthright candor and Beth’s perfect understanding of what has gone down.









Parting Glances, by Bill Sherwood


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While the central plot of Bill Sherwood’s one movie, Parting Glances, concerns the relationship between the bookish Michael (Richard Ganoung) and his hunky lover, Robert (John Bolger), its heart lies in the bond between Michael and Nick (Steve Buscemi), a charmingly mordant rock’n’roller with AIDS.

The dialog in this early example of independent American cinema is a bit stiff in parts—none of the players had much big screen experience—but Buscemi’s brilliance as a character actor, a curious meld of James Dean and Bugs Bunny, infuses the project with a lithe, low-key, comic poetry akin to the vibe that Jim Jarmusch was inventing at the same time. (And it didn’t take long for Jarmusch and Buscemi to find each other.)

Parting Glances takes place on Robert’s last night in New York before flying to West Africa, where he has accepted a two-year work assignment. Over the course of the evening, which involves a dinner with his boss, a roll in the hay with Michael, a fabulous going-away party thrown by their painter friend Joan (Kathy Kinney), and a workout at a disco, the lovers reveal their affection for each other but also their very different temperaments. Nick’s illness becomes a litmus test, with Michael making pit stops at Nick’s apartment to cook for him and bring him records (he is turning this gaunt, leather clad rocker into an opera fan) while Robert stays away from the doomed man, defending his cowardice by insisting that Nick knew about AIDS and continued to live dangerously. Robert is running, from Nick and AIDS and from other things as well.

The film supports both the sweetly sardonic Nick and the slightly nerdy Michael, the Midwestern boy with a moral compass. Michael defies certain stereotypes of gay representation in being playful, thoughtful, and average-looking, while at the same time adored by his friends and pursued by the youngest and prettiest boy at the party. He and Robert are both somewhat compromised by the need to make a living: Michael is editing the novel of an acquaintance with no talent, while Robert works for Cecil (Patrick Tull), an insinuating, old-school queen resembling Gomez Addams. At the same time, their world is rich in both love and friendship, a richness that romantic commitment will not diminish to a vanishing point.

Sherwood, who himself died of AIDS four years after the film was released in 1986, executes a neat sleight of hand in Parting Glances: the prospect of Nick’s disappearance hurts hard, even as the film often feels like a light-footed sprint around the fountain.

Mia Madre, Directed by Nanni Moretti

While directing a film starring “Barry Huggins” (John Turturro), a showboating American actor who can’t remember his lines, filmmaker Margherita (Margherita Buy) spends as much time as she can with her mother, Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), a former Latin teacher who is hospitalized with a failing heart. Margherita deeply loves the agreeable and intelligent Ada, and cannot accept that soon her mother will die.

Still she pushes on with the film, coaching the incorrigible Barry on the set by day and spending exhausting evenings drinking with him at his insistence. Meanwhile she and her former husband are co-parenting their lovely daughter, Livia (Beatrice Mancini). If Margherita decides to end a relationship with a smitten lover, who can blame her? She has enough on her hands.

Inevitably, Mia Madre evokes 8 ½, Fellini’s classic portrait of a director (Marcello Mastroianni) who has lost his way, aesthetically and morally, while making a film that grows more chaotic and meaningless by the day. Margherita, too, has lost faith in her vision. Her film concerns a massive factory layoff and consequent occupation by distraught workers. Yet she abhors political rhetoric and urges her actors not to identify with their characters, but to “stand beside” them. No one knows what she means.

While Fellini’s antihero hoists himself on his own petard, however, betraying his elegant wife (Anouk Aimée) with his kittenish mistress (Claudia Cardinale), Moretti’s Margherita seems unfairly judged by her maker. In a film about the making of a film about the importance of work to identity, coals are heaped upon her head for her selfishness in adhering to her vocation. Ada reveals that young Livia has recently experienced her first heartbreak over a boy—and Margherita never even noticed. The jilted lover tells Margherita what a horrible person she is (for dumping him!) and the film gives him full support.

Most insulting, Moretti casts himself as Giovanni, Margherita’s brother and maddeningly perfect counterpart. When Margherita brings take-out to the hospital to spare Ada from institutional food, Giovanni is already there, serving her with homemade pasta. While Margherita scourges her crew with screams of “Cut! Cut!” in the service of a product of her own imagination, Giovanni quits his high-paying corporate job to devote himself, it is implied, to “real life.” Even Barry, Margherita’s accomplice in the delusional world of artifice, is able to get real and boogie down with the crew, while she looks on, arms folded across her chest.

If Moretti’s intent was to create a self-reflexive image of the egocentric auteur—as Fellini does in 8 ½–he errs by identifying himself body and soul with the simpatico Giovanni. Instead of a frank but empathetic depiction of conflicting duties and the terror of aesthetic fragmentation, the film weighs in as a conventional portrait of the woman artist as narcissist and control-freak.


Mountains May Depart, Directed by Zhangke Jia (2015)


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The title of director Zhangke Jia’s latest film,  Mountains May Depart, suggests that the most solid and permanent-seeming features of a landscape will change over time, and may entirely disappear. By implication, even people blessed with beauty and loved abundantly may be left alone and without bearings. By enduring such changes while remaining emotionally vital and psychologically balanced, Zhangke’s protagonist, Tao (Tao Zhao), offers a pattern for an unexpectedly sad yet beautiful life.

The story is told in three chapters several years apart. In 1999, the lovely young Tao sings and dances in traditional New Year’s celebrations, trailed by her suitors, Liangzi (Jing Dong Liang) and Dollar (Zijian Dong). The former is a close friend of Tao and her father, who together run a convenience store. (Tao’s mother, presumably dead, foretells future absences.) Dollar, as the name implies, is a precocious entrepreneur.

Joyriding about town in Dollar’s big car with both swains, treating them equally as chums, Tao does not tip her hand. Impatient with her discretion, Dollar makes vague plans to disable his rival with dynamite. Tao discovers the explosives and makes  him detonate them in a frozen river. The image of the blast recurs several times in the film, associating the entitled bully, Dollar, with China’s multiple industrial disasters and catastrophic engineering of the Yangtze River. The story of Tao and her friends parallels the tale of China’s heedless modernization.

Finally, Dollar warns Liangzi to forfeit Tao or lose his job at the coal mine. Liangzi refuses and is fired. But the harder blow falls when he sees Tao in Dollar’s arms at a nightclub. He leaves the city to begin his years as an impoverished itinerant worker.

Tao has, of course, chosen the wrong man. By 2014 she and Dollar have divorced and he has taken their son, Jinsheng, to live in luxury in Australia. When Tao’s beloved father dies, she insists that the boy return to China for the funeral. Tao and Jinsheng, virtual strangers, relate clumsily to each other, as he Skypes with his father’s mistress and Tao reels with grief for her father. At the funeral, she pushes the child to his knees to pray for the departed. But she also cooks trim, plump dumplings for him, the first he has ever tasted. By the time they have begun to warm to each other, Jinsheng must fly back to Australia. They never meet again.

Liangzi, too, has married and born a son, but he seems to take no joy in them, as they move exhaustedly from town to town, seeking work. Mining has ruined Liangzi’s lungs. When the family lands back in his home city, his wife seeks help from Tao, who brings money to Liangzi’s bedside. They do not talk about what might have been. Romantic regrets would trivialize the tragedy that his life has become.

In 2025, Jinsheng (Yi Zhang), who has grown up in Australia speaking English, tells his Chinese language class that he has no mother. Truly, he lacks not only a mother—Dollar’s mistress has evaporated—but a mother tongue and a homeland. And he is soon to cast off his father as well, after enlisting his teacher, Mia (Sylvia Chang), to translate as he tells his boorish parent that he is quitting college. The conversation goes nowhere, except to intensify Jinsheng’s infatuation with the elegant, sympathetic older woman, who is obviously, except to him, a mother substitute.

Herself embroiled in a nasty divorce and far from her home in Toronto, Mia begins an affair with her pupil. When he is taken for her son by a sales clerk, however, Jinsheng recoils. Foreseeing the inevitable, Mia delicately breaks off the affair.

They are all alone. In China, Tao makes dumplings for no one, yet fleetingly senses the presence of her son, perhaps a telepathic perception of his longing for her, and smiles. She takes her dog to the beach. The dog is a golden retriever, possibly the third she has owned over the course of the film, and an emblem of her faithfulness to life. Unleashing the dog, she performs tai chi on the rocks. Somehow, loss has failed to blow up her soul.



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Anomalisa 2Michael Stone, the aptly named protagonist of Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman’s animated drama Anomalisa, is greying at the temples, but he still has not learned the essential fact about himself: that he is incapable of intimacy. This lack of self-knowledge has enabled a long career of breaking hearts, as he has striven to overcome his loneliness by having affairs.

The inability to love is not in itself a crime; it is a shortcoming, perhaps a tragic one. What is culpable is ignoring the evidence in the shattered lives around oneself. When Michael, a charismatic speaker, lands in Cincinnati for a presentation on customer relations (!), he phones a former lover to meet him in the bar. When she arrives, she tells him she spent a year in bed after he left her, flattened by the shock and hurt of his sudden disappearance. This does not stop Michael from hinting that perhaps she would like to come upstairs to his room. She would not.

He has better luck with Lisa, a customer relations specialist who has traveled to Cincinnati to hear him speak and is staying at the hotel. Convinced that she is unattractive because of a scar on her temple, which she hides behind a curtain of hair, Lisa is tickled pink by Michael’s attentions, and willingly enough goes to bed with him, expecting nothing more.

To Michael’s credit, he is keenly sensitive to sound; in the first sequence of the film, he negotiates the airport in earbuds, listening to an aria sung by Joan Sutherland. Except the voice is not Joan Sutherland’s, but the monotonous male voice in which everyone speaks in Michael’s world.

Anomalously, Lisa speaks like a woman, a vulnerable human being open to happiness, a person who can be thrilled by scrambled eggs for breakfast. When he hears her voice, Michael is smitten, or thinks he is. The morning after their tryst, he astonishes her by saying he wants to spend the rest of his life with her, that his wife and son are nothing.

At that very moment, the spell is broken. Suddenly he cannot abide her table manners, or anything about her. It is over before it has begun.

Lisa, whose soul is full, will recover, but this episode would appear to be Michael’s last delusional attempt to become a real boy through the enchantments of romantic love. After a disastrous, rambling presentation at the customer service convention—a classic crack-up scene—he flies home to his wife and son. She tells him she does not want him to leave. He answers, “Where would I go?”

It is a question he needs to answer. They would both be better off if he took an apartment somewhere and found a job in a music store. Perhaps he could adopt a dog.

Michael’s character is voiced by the marvelous David Thewlis and Lisa’s by the ever-susceptible Jennifer Jason Leigh. The characters are embodied by puppets that show the seams between their parts, suggesting the fragility of their identities: a chunk of Michael’s face falls off during his breakdown at the hotel. Lisa’s scar, like her voice, signals that she is made of flesh, that her substance has remained organic, unlike the others in Michael’s world, who are calcified by pain and boredom. Or at least that is how he perceives them.


Victoria (2015), Directed by Sebastian Schipper


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Victoria 3Victoria (Laia Costa), who has failed to make the final cut in music school in Madrid, is now steaming lattes in Berlin, her dream of playing concert piano stopped cold. Coming out a of club one night near dawn, she meets Sonne (Frederick Lau), Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit), and Fuß (Max Mauff)—no, not reindeer, but Berliners with no particular place to be.

A tour de force, Victoria’s 138 minutes were filmed in one shot in real time, but director Sebastian Schipper’s manipulation of duration during the shoot is anything but metronomic. While Victoria and the young men loiter on the streets, she on her bike and the gang milling about her, time expands to fit the slow sorting out of relationships. Sonne, a swain in clown’s clothing, steadily and ardently seeks Victoria’s favor. Blinker concedes the contest by dubbing her “Sister,” a term affectionate but not romantic. The intense quasi-skinhead, Boxer, shows off by bossing around the others. Fuß’s birthday celebration has left him too tipsy to compete.

The young men’s clubhouse is someone else’s rooftop, where they bring Victoria to smoke, drink, joke, flirt, and confide. She unnerves them by swinging her legs over the side of the building. Victoria is up for anything. When the hour approaches for her to open the café, Sonne accompanies her. There is a piano in the café, and she plays for him. They recognize a seriousness in each other that makes them reluctant to part ways as night turns into day. The spell is broken, however, when Boxer arrives, demanding that Sonne help him return a favor for a man who protected him in prison.

Four men are needed for the job—a bank heist—but Fuß is too drunk to be of use. Boxer becomes hysterical. If he doesn’t deliver, he is in big trouble. As time accelerates under pressure, Victoria and Sonne’s competence in an absurd and dangerous situation emerges. Sonne steadies himself to be the frontman; Victoria, behind the wheel of the getaway car, deals with Boxer’s aggression and Blinker’s cocaine-induced panic attack. The heist goes off without a hitch. Flush with cash and adrenaline, the four barge into a club—they never close in Berlin—hugging, dancing, drinking, mooning. Victoria and Sonne kiss for the first time.

In the greatest crime stories, the deed itself is only the beginning, as the often-amateur perpetrators face the consequences, whether guilt, mutual mistrust, arrest, a life in hiding, or a bloody shootout. This is also the case with Victoria and the four young people at loose ends in Berlin whose 138 minutes together have attained the gravitas of a lifetime.

Phoenix (2014), Directed by Christian Petzold


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The Galatea Phoenixof modern Pygmalion stories takes on, not only flesh and blood, but also a will.

In Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, Nelly Lenz (the magnificent Nina Hoss) is released from Auschwitz in the care of her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf). Nelly’s head is completely bandaged as the result of gunshot wounds. In Berlin, a plastic surgeon offers her a new face—he can make her look like a movie star—but she insists that he reconstruct her features as much as possible to resemble her old self.

Lene offers Nelly a chance to begin a new life in Israel with their post-war reparation payments. But Nelly, who only survived the camp by fixating on her reunion with her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), is not ready for renewal.

Lene works in a records office, registering the names of people exterminated by Nazis. While Nelly was incarcerated, without news of the outside world, Lene learned the fate of all their friends—who perished and who collaborated. She knows that Johnny was imprisoned and released days before Nelly was caught. One day she sees him slip into the stacks, only to be chased by a worker. Leafing through the file he has dropped in haste, Lene further discovers that, before Nelly’s arrest, Johnny obtained a divorce. She warns Nelly that Johnny is a traitor, but to spare her friend, who is already severely traumatized, she does not tell all she knows.

Before her arrest, Nelly sang and Johnny played piano in nightclubs. Now she prowls the nocturnal streets of a demolished Berlin with a little revolver, a gift from Lene, in her handbag. She finds Johnny soon enough, busing tables in a café. He does not recognize his glamorous former wife in this emaciated, grey-haired, bruised and broken creature. Yet he can see enough of a resemblance to suggest that they scheme together to claim Nelly’s reparation money.

Perhaps Johnny loved Nelly, and betrayed her only when faced with his own destruction. Attractive, pragmatic, he has made his compromise and lived. He can hardly expect or wish ever to see Nelly again.

In order to be close to him, Nelly agrees to the scheme. Calling herself Esther, she allows him to refashion her as a dark-haired beauty with a confident walk. He does not ask her to attempt to sing.

To test her disguise, Johnny arranges a gathering in a beer garden with old acquaintances. She arrives at the assignment with something besides a gun in her handbag: the divorce papers, left to her by Lene, who has committed suicide.

The old acquaintances accept her as Nelly. Stunned at their willingness to believe that survivors leave Auschwitz wearing lipstick and high heels, and possibly wondering what role these people played during the war, she barely speaks. When they have finished their welcoming speeches, she suggests that she and Johnny perform one of their old numbers, Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low.” No doubt wondering what Esther can be thinking, but unwilling to challenge her in public, he sits down at the beer garden piano and begins to play.

Esther’s voice, at first a whisper, gains resonance as she sings. Astonished, Johnny stops playing and looks up, seeing for the first time what she has, literally, up her sleeve: a camp serial number.

Director Petzold wrote the screenplay of Phoenix with his mentor, German media artist Harun Farocki, who was born during the war in a part of Czechoslovakia annexed by the Third Reich. Before his death in 2014, Farocki worked with Petzold on five films, including 2012’s Barbara, also starring Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld.