The Haunting Beauty of “Phoenix”
Christian Movie Review
In the non-ghost sense, “Haunting”: 1) poignant and evocative; difficult to ignore or forget; or, as a verb, 2) be persistently in the mind of someone — according to Oxford.
“Beauty”: a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight.
Those words describe “Phoenix” well, though it is the imagination and intuition that discerns its beauty more than the eyes. It’s one of those rare films that, like great novelists, uses the omission of details and facts, thus forcing your imagination to work to fill in the details. It doesn’t spoon feed you everything.
It is haunting because it has been impossible to forget since I’ve seen it. And, by the way, I should add: this review of an art-house film is my modest attempt at a protest. Two wide release mainstream movies came out this weekend — “American Ultra” and “Agent 47” — and both, from what I had read from early reviews were incessantly, mindlessly, gratuitously violent. I’ve reviewed plenty of movies like them before, but I’m a little burned out this summer. I’ve had enough of these lowest denominator tent pole movies this year, honestly. I needed a break from Hollywood’s big budget, bottom-line driven entertainment.
I needed something from the art-house world.
Though, believe me, I am not, by any means, a movie art-house expert. I’m sure they would not let me into their club. I don’t say that with disdain. I think it would be a fascinating circle of intellectuals to explore from the inside. I wish I could roam freely in that club and see the sights. But I’m just not high brow or educated enough in film analysis, and I often — probably too often — enjoy the mindless Hollywood tent pole movie, even when it’s an obvious, commercialized cash grab. (Avengers come to mind. I’m such a sucker for those movies.)
But “Phoenix.” Wow. Phoenix. If you want to see film craft when it’s operating at its highest level, I urge you to see this movie. And the plot is one of those wow-whoever-thought-of-that-is-a-genius plots.
IMDB sums up the plot as follows: “A disfigured concentration-camp survivor (Nina Hoss), unrecognizable after facial reconstruction surgery, searches ravaged postwar Berlin for the husband (Ronald Zehrfeld) who might have betrayed her to the Nazis.”
There are three things I love in particular about this film:
1. The acting. Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld are glorious. In this film they are everything the greatest actors strive to be. Their expressions, mannerisms, body language, all of it, is so nuanced and meaningful (every little thing) that you hardly need a script. They could act the entire film without saying a word, and you could understand the relationship and the story.
2. The quietness. Everything about the film speaks low. This makes it that much more appropriate to have the jazz standard “Speak Low” function as the anthem of the film. It captures the bombed out, defeated, ghost town of 1945 post-WWII Berlin with great sensitivity and care. There’s a post-apocalyptic weariness in everyone’s faces. The shadow of the concentration camps darkens every conversation, street, and relationship — especially the relationship between the two main characters Nelly and Johnny.
3. It says more by showing less. Famous novelist Ernest Hemingway often omitted story and character details — things that most other novelists wouldn’t dare omit — because he had a theory about the intuition of both the writer and the reader. Hemingway sums it up as follows:
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing…
“Phoenix” presents the cinematic version of this approach. It omits information or it allows important actions by characters to happen off-screen so that the viewer must deduce the action using circumstantial clues and the reactions of other characters on-screen who are witnessing the event. It forces the audience to use its imagination like you do when you’re reading a book. This somehow gives more weight and realism to the film. You walk away feeling not as if you’ve seen a movie but more as if you’ve just been an eye-witness to the intimate moments of a real person’s life.
It’s also a stunning transcript, a carefully observant record, of what happens when Faithful Love encounters Betrayal. While other less true-to-human-nature films will give this encounter a cleanly divided Me vs. You drama in which the betrayed party immediately transforms into the One-Who-Must-Get-Revenge-And-Win sympathetic hero, this film doesn’t slide lazily into that trap. Instead we see the betrayed party cling to love in a much more plausible way — in the way that you or I would most likely react if we were in that character’s shoes. The film delicately handles this complicated truth that comes tangled up in a ball of persistent love, denial, unbearable pain, and a surprising tolerance for the excruciating kind of hope that stubbornly persists even in the most painful heartache.
And the truth of our identity — that true, naked core of our character — will always find the light of day, sometime, somewhere. That can be both a terrifying and a comforting thing to accept.
“Phoenix” captures that terror and comfort with an unforgettable, haunting beauty that speaks low and yet manages to stay with you far longer than the deafening, wall-shaking blockbuster action movies roaring in the theater next to you.
My rating for “Phoenix”: [usr 9.5] (See my notes about my rating system after the parental guidance section.)
Parental Guidance Issues at a Glance for this PG-13 rated film…
Sexual Content/Nudity/Themes of Sexuality and Romance: Two female club singers wear lingerie-styled outfits on stage during a performance. (No nudity though.) A man forces a woman into an alley where he presumably rapes her, but we don’t see anything. We do, however, hear what happens, and it is somewhat graphic and disturbing in the realism of the sounds. It is not a lengthy scene, however. A man and woman kiss passionately as a cover to hide the woman’s identity from passersby.
Violence/Gore/Scary Content: A woman with a gun
shot wound to her face is seen with bandages. Blood is soaking through the bandages. In one instance, as she unrolls her bandages to show a soldier her face, for a very brief instant we begin to see a small part of her wound on its edges, but the camera cuts away before it becomes too graphic for a PG-13 rating. A man roughly handles a woman and forces her into an alley, and a rape is heard but not seen.
Language: Most of the film is subtitled. There are a few scattered “mild” swear words, but no f-words.
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: Many characters are seen smoking throughout the film as that was quite common in that era and location. Characters are seen drinking alcohol in social settings and in private.
Note about my rating system for the movie’s film craft and entertainment value:
1 star = one of the worst movies ever made (the stuff of bad movie legends), and it usually (not always) has below 10% on Rotten Tomatoes
2-3 stars = a mostly bad movie that has a handful of nice moments; it usually falls between 10-30% on Rotten Tomatoes
4-6 stars = a decent movie with some flaws, overall. Four stars mean its flaws outweigh the good. Five stars mean equal good, equal bad. Six stars mean it’s a fairly good movie, with some great moments even, that outweigh a few flaws. A 4-6 star rating usually means it falls between 30-59% on Rotten Tomatoes (but not always).
7-9 stars = a rare rating reserved only for the best movies of that year; and a film must have a Fresh Tomato rating (60% or higher) on Rotten Tomatoes to be given 7 stars or higher, with a few exceptions (if I strongly disagree with the critics).
10 stars = one of the best films of all time, right up there with the all-time greats (i.e. Casablanca, The African Queen, Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars Episode IV, Indiana Jones, etc.).
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