Glimmering in the crumbling rubble of post-war Berlin are the red letters of the Phoenix club, promising hope and reincarnation to the soundtrack of show tunes and raucous American squaddies. Nelly (Nina Hoss) has survived a concentration camp and now returns home with her good friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf). Badly disfigured, the songstress must make a choice when offered plastic surgery whether to adopt a new face, or to hold on to her old self with an imitative reconstruction of her former appearance. Here lies the crux of Phoenix, an enigmatic human drama about identity and the allure of the past. The war has taken everything from her, but she cannot bear to sever the ties with the pre-war version of herself. To her, that is the Nelly she will always be. The same dilemma that faces the whole of Germany – the identity of a nation ripped from under its feet.
There is a moment when the nervy, wide-eyed Nelly picks over the bones of her demolished home and her face catches for a split second in two pieces of broken mirror. It’s a hugely evocative sequence in the film’s early stages that hints at the separation of self soon to follow. Below her heavily bandaged new face has there been reconstruction, or recreation? She longs to live in the experiences of the past – but have the horrors of war erased this dream?
And so she is drawn to the Phoenix with rumours her pianist husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), was able to survive his camp and is now working the bar. To divulge too much of where Petzold takes us would be sacrilege, but there is much Hitchcockian mistrust and deception. She catches the eye of a man who bears a close resemblance to her husband. He at first offers zero acknowledgement – before bundling her back to his cramped basement apartment with a surreal offer we are never quite sure whether to place our faith in.
There is a restrained elegance to the plot of Phoenix, that hides its secrets in plain sight. Petzold doesn’t require twists or elaborate dramatics to make your heart quicken with the magic of the medium – he achieves this with finely crafted characters and a transfixing focus on a tight story. We question the honesty of every character, as their interplay is shrouded by the unsaid, but it doesn’t deceive us, the audience: it allows events to play out at their own deliberate pace.
There is the plucked bass and resonating piano of noir, and with such a domestic, emotionally charged scenario an air of syrupy melodrama is always creeping into the edges of the frame. But Phoenix doesn’t slip to these easy categorisations – it offers something more spiritual and abstract on the very nature of self.
The well-observed styling and production design set the mood for something traditional in tone and narrative, permitting Phoenix the accessibility for Petzold to take our hands and pull us along back streets into his more transcendental territory. The experience is much like that of its Berlin residents: the setting and images feel familiar, but the air and relationships around them have forever shifted. This strange indefinable sense of change emits viscerally from the performance of the remarkable Nina Hoss, whose metamorphosis from bandage wrapped patient to a masquerade of her carefree self is startling. Not simply for the physical; we can feel her soul reconfiguring as she pieces together all that has befallen her. Phoenix works as a superbly taut thriller – edited exceptionally to a nothing-wasted 98 minutes – as well as a contemplation on personal and national identity. No one else seems to be making grown-up films like Christian Petzold. A director with a respect for the power of cinema, and for the strength to be found in a confined plot.
[ 2014 — Dir: Christian Petzold — 98 mins — IMDb ]
This Argentinian, post-apocalyptic chamber piece from debutante Christoph Behl sees three fraying survivors of the zombie uprising holed up in a Robinson Crusoe rigged apartment block. As claustrophobia takes hold and the niggles and tensions of cohabitation worm under the skin, the greatest threat to their survival becomes not the snarling beasts thumping at their walls, but themselves. This is obviously well worn ground, with the taste for zombie fiction a current fixture of the mainstream, but Behl’s independent spark and stripped back urgency lend What’s Left of Us its own glint of freshness.
Firstly, the focus falls on the three central players and their evolving relationships – we are initially unaware of what has passed between them, but fragments of a forgotten past can be felt in the air. The external devastation is only fleetingly glimpsed in the opening passages, and the characters' main contact with the outside world is through an intricate setup of microphones and speakers. Action stems instead from the boiling pot of their sweltering rooms, as Axel (Lautaro Delgado), Ana (Victoria Almeida) and Jonathan (William Prociuk) kill time playing board games and spin-the-bottle, attempting to cut themselves off from the grim death outside, and in many ways their own feelings. It is only in the ‘therapy room’ that any weight can be lifted. Ana has insisted on a private space in which they can purge their innermost turmoil in a video diary, kept from each other under lock and key. Far from cleansing, these confessions become the straw that breaks their delicate society as it becomes clear they have not been as well secured as they believed.
The passage of time is marked only by the growing number of tiny, black rice grain tattoos that overwhelm Axel’s skin. A ritual that, he claims, when completed will signal his departure from the group. Creeping across his skin like a sickness, with every new needle prick he becomes more volatile, jealous and enraged. What has been bottled up for so long can no longer be contained.
In terms of performance and dialogue, everything is passably natural – though
what is perhaps most successful about What’s Left of Us is its fraught, enclosing atmosphere soundtracked by the endless buzzing of flies and a parched breathless heat. It is this oppressive milieu which lingers most strongly. However, occasional narrative missteps blunt its emotional force – the trio’s decision to capture and torment one of the undead particularly jars, derailing some of the film’s more interesting human qualities.
Produced on a shoestring budget, Behl capitalises on these financial constraints to weave a satisfyingly underplayed drama that uses the genre as a tool to drive its emotional resonance rather than its sole reason for being. This is nothing new, and you just have to look at the father of screen undead, George Romero, to see how successfully social issues and human drama can be played out against a nightmarish backdrop. What’s Left of Us embraces the lineage, and despite its flaws and restrictive scale finds an engagingly strained human drama in the dark clammy rooms of the post-apocalypse.
[ 2013 — Dir: Christoph Behl — 98 mins — IMDb ]
There exists an uncomfortable beauty in unbroken shots that are held longer than expectation dictates – a sense that what is being viewed is real and is genuinely unfurling in real time. This is how Miroslav Slaboshpitsky constructs The Tribe, his hugely impressive drama set within the oppressive walls of a boarding school for deaf children, with elongated tracking shots placing us as voyeurs peering over shoulders into the brutal, corrupting world. The verisimilitude is further reinforced by the remarkable decision to tell the story with no dialogue or subtitles, simply allowing the sign language and actions of the actors to subtly express the plot. This isn’t done with any regard for the traditions of silent cinema – nothing verges on close-up, expressions are far from exaggerated; instead Slaboshpitsky composes the film as you would any other, and The Tribe is all the more powerful for it.
The base plot is required to be fairly linear, but is still communicated with a startling articulacy. Never a moment passes where we are unsure of motivation or relationship. To sketch an outline it may appear as an experimental art piece – in a way it is – but there is a clear affection and respect for genre shown by the Ukrainian writer/director. At its core it's a mob movie, every bit as thrilling and struck through with unflinching brutality as that suggests.
A new student (Grigory Fesenko) is thrust into the lawless, gangland society of the boarding school. Muggings, prostitution and violence are commonplace, with teachers running the student body as their own breeding ground of ne'er-do-wells. Isolated and picked on, he does whatever it takes to be brought into the fold of his classmates, young thugs who strut the corridors reeking of testosterone and sportswear.
Flaking paint, former-Soviet architecture daubed in graffiti – it’s a miserable world closer to a prison than a place of learning. There is little joy to be found in the cold landscape, a feeling intensified by the thick, oppressive nature of the silence that hangs over every moment. Squeaking of shoes, buzzing of strip lights, movement of hands – these are the only sounds we hear. To see heated arguments and nerve shredding tension break out against such a background is a deeply unsettling experience. We wait for the release of a guttural scream that never comes.
The boy becomes more trusted and ingrained as part of the institution, but as is so often the case for young tough guy movie upstarts, his soft heart threatens to be his undoing as he falls in love with the girl he is supposed to be pimping around the grim, shadowy truck stop. He has been corrupted, and transformed; but his reaming sliver of humanity will tear him to pieces.
This is a narrative of pure convention shaped into a fraught, muscular tragedy by the confidence of its director. No punches are pulled, no words are spoken. For every second of The Tribe the film feels alive and charged with the unexpected. It is a remarkable achievement. Without dialogue or subtitles, the connection with Slaboshpitsky’s cruel world cannot be broken for fear of missing a beat. Resultantly it transfixes with an otherworldly strangeness that draws us in with threads of familiarity, like the blurry edges of a nightmare that contort a recognisable face into a hideous new monster.
[ 2014 — Dir: Miroslav Slaboshpitsky — 132 mins — IMDb ]
Nominated for five Academy Awards and two BAFTAs, the most anticipated thriller of the year – FOXCATCHER – comes to DVD & Blu-ray on 18 May, and to celebrate we have 3 DVDs to give away.
FOXCATCHER is a gripping tale based on true events that presents us with exceptional, outstanding performances from all three leading cast members: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. When wealthy John du Pont (Steve Carell) invites Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to move to his estate and help form a wrestling team for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Mark sees a way to step out of the shadow of his charismatic and revered brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo) and instantly accepts his offer.
However, du Pont begins to lead Mark down a dark path while becoming fixated on recruiting Dave to ‘Team Foxcatcher’. As tensions and paranoia run high through their constant power-struggles and the pursuit of victory, all three men are propelled towards an unforeseen event that will change their lives forever.
FOXCATCHER is available on DVD and Blu-ray from 18 May 2015 and available to pre-order now from Amazon; also available to Download early from 4 May 2015.
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