PHOENIX (2015, Christian Petzold)
The sweat dripping off the screen does not come from the actors, though they sure as shit are working hard — it’s from Petzold himself, putting a massive amount of effort into creating a restrained melodrama. Scene after scene reeks of smugness; the DVD commentary track could just be Petzold saying “I’m so proud of this moment” over and over. It’s the way he apes ’40s film noir by raking light over rocks in night-time Berlin (when Nelly searches for Johnny in the American sector), the strained symbolism about Jews losing their identity during the Holocaust and Germans living in denial, and especially the sure-to-be-talked-about ending scene which almost literally involves a mic-drop. “I bet this part is gonna knock them out,” Petzold nods, just off camera, then looking around for crew-members to high-five.
But the narrative doesn’t hold up to real scrutiny, and there are so many wasted strands — including the half-formed third-wheel character of Lene, whose jumbled emotions (jealousy? shame? grief? guilt? desire/love?) could have made for a decent study but don’t go anywhere (unless the gay subtext isn’t as buried as it looked like to me). And in his grandstanding eagerness to leave the audience on a high note (pun intended), Petzold dodges having to wrestle with Zehrfeld’s character and the fallout from his recent discovery. Without that, Zehrfeld is but another cog in the storytelling machine, a prop and a device, albeit one with amazing hair.