Pras on WorldFilms: PHOENIX

I have always been a big fan of the nuances Nina Hoss (A Woman In Berlin, Barbara) brings to roles in some of the best films I’ve watched about events during WWII especially about the Holocaust, and the stories that have touched us. Schindler’s List, The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, The Counterfeiter.  Few films have explored lives and experiences of survivors post-Holocaust, barring a few directors such as Lilliana Cavani’s with her film “Night Porter“.

PHOENIX is one such amazing film with an equally amazing twist. Director Christian Piezold’s earlier film was, a ’80s-era East German period piece, “Barbara,” won best Phoenix 4director at the Berlin Film Festival and represented Germany in the 2012 foreign-language Oscar race.

PHOENIX was made in the tradition of postwar noir films, in which thick shadows envelop the ruined remains of once great cities and the people living lives with what they had just to keep living on. The script is by Petzold and Harun Farocki, adapted from French crime writer Hubert Monteilhet’s 1963 novel Return From the Ashes (also the source material for a 1965 film starring Maximilian Schell and Samantha Eggar).

Phoenix 7PHOENIX is the name of a Berlin nightclub in the American sector whose neon sign casts a supernova of blood-red light. The story is about Nelly Lenz, a Jewish singer who emerges from the living hell of Auschwitz, with a lost career, her non-Jewish husband Johnny (a German piano player at the Phoenix), and now also her very appearance thanks to the Nazis. Nelly made it out of Auschwitz alive, but with a badly disfigured face (the result of a gunshot wound). It’s 1945.

Accompanied by her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), she travels to a clinic for reconstructive surgery, where she’s told that she can choose any sort of face she wants (including that of Jewish Austrian screen siren Hedy Lamarr) — a new face for a new Germany, as it were. But Nelly stubbornly insists that she wants to look just as she did before the war, as a popular chanteuse and married to Johnny. (Earlier Johnny had been taken in for questioning by the SS. Two days later, he was released. Nelly was transported to a concentration camp. The film leaves unsaid if its Johnny who may have betrayed Nelly to the Nazis to save his own skin).

Phoenix 1After reconstructive surgery, Nelly emerges with a new face, one similar but different enough that her former husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), doesn’t recognize her.

Nelly also shares an apartment with Lene who toils away in the Hall Of Jewish Records cataloguing the dead. Lene insists that it was Johnny who gave Nelly up to the Nazis to save his own life and that she should leave Germany for Haifa, where there’s an apartment waiting for her. Despite Lene’s objections, Nelly chooses to return to Berlin seeking out Johnny. She is a shattered woman in a city of rubble.

Phoenix 2Johnny is eager to get his hands on her estate, which is being held by Allied authorities. He’s sure his wife is dead. Failing to recognize Nelly right in front of him, he notices a coincidental resemblance, which he decides to exploit for an elaborate ruse.  He thinks she looks enough like his wife to be able — with the right clothes and hair and walk and way of speaking — to pass herself off as Nelly and collect Nelly’s substantial inheritance. Rather than reveal herself, Nelly walks into a dangerous game of duplicity and disguise as she tries to figure out if the man she loves may have betrayed her to the Nazis.

By rehearsing the way Nelly dressed and walked, Johnny’s plan is they will stage a reunion for the benefit of their old friends, collect the cash, split it and go their separate ways. And the dazed Nelly allows him to coach her.  As they move forward its apparent while Nelly tries futilely to reclaim a lost past, Johnny runs just as far in the opposite direction, seeking to wipe the historical record clean of what he was really up to during the war.

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Time and again, Johnny comes close to picking up on the truth — it’s a measure of the subtlety of Zehrfeld’s performance that he conveys these glimmers of recognition with nothing more than a faint shift in his glance. Johnny sees only what he wants to see, and he’s a mystery Nelly must solve for herself. She puts every piece together in Phoenix‘s jaw-dropping final scene.

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Pras on WorldFilms: HANNAH ARENDT

imageA look at the life of philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt, who reported for The New Yorker on the war crimes trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann.

In the award-winning HANNAH ARENDT, the sublime Barbara Sukowa reteams with director Margarethe von Trotta (Vision, Rosa Luxemburg) for a brilliant new biopic of the influential German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist.
The film is centred on her coverage of the 1961 trial of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann in Israel for The New Yorker, which she also published as a book. In her writings, she proposes that Eichmann is not an evil man, but an ignorant and stupid one instead, coining the phrase “the banality of evil”. The concept stirred controversy throughout the world upon its publication in 1963. She also implies that Jewish councils outside of Germany may be implicated in the extermination of Europe’s Jews, for not providing a stronger resistance to the Nazis. The film, by covering this small time in Arendt’s life, manages to capture her distinct characteristics, and provide an introduction to her philosophies.
hannah-arendtArendt’s reporting on the 1961 trial of ex-Nazi Adolf Eichmann in The New Yorker—controversial both for her portrayal of Eichmann and the Jewish councils—introduced her now-famous concept of the “Banality of Evil.” Using footage from the actual Eichmann trial and weaving a narrative that spans three countries, von Trotta beautifully turns the often invisible passion for thought into immersive, dramatic cinema.
An Official Selection at the Toronto International and New York Jewish Film Festivals, Hannah Arendt also co-stars Klaus Pohl as philosopher Martin Heidegger, Nicolas Woodeson as New Yorker editor William Shawn, and two-time Oscar Nominee Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs) as novelist Mary McCarthy.

The banality of evil is examined in this solid and intelligent account of Arendt’s controversial conclusions on the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Deftly blending low-key drama with archival black-and-white footage of the Nazi’s cross-examination, director Margarethe von Trotta raises thorny questions about complicity and guilt, conclusions which caused outrage when first aired in the pages of the New Yorker. Award-winner Barbara Sukowa is excellently measured in the title role.
  “Hannah Arendt,”  has unleashed emotional commentary that mirrors the fierce debate Arendt herself ignited over half a century ago, when she covered the trial of the notorious war criminal Adolf Eichmann. One of the pre-eminent political thinkers of the 20th century, Arendt, who died in 1975 at the age of 69, was a Jew arrested by the German police in 1933, forced into exile and later imprisoned in an internment camp. She escaped and fled to the United States in 1941, where she wrote the seminal books “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and “The Human Condition.”
Adolf Eichmann was living among a fraternity of former Nazis in Argentina, before Israeli agents captured him and spirited him out of the country and to Israel for trial. 
When Arendt heard that Eichmann was to be put on trial, she knew she had to attend. It would be, she wrote, her last opportunity to see a major Nazi “in the flesh.” 
Adolf Eichmann in the Jerusalem courtroom where he was tried in 1961 for war crimes committed during World War II.
Eichmann’s writings include an unpublished memoir, “The Others Spoke, Now Will I Speak,” and an interview conducted over many months with a Nazi journalist and war criminal, Willem Sassen, which were not released until long after the trial. Eichmann’s justification of his actions to Sassen is considered more genuine than his testimony before judges in Jerusalem.
Writing in The New Yorker, she expressed shock that Eichmann was not a monster, but “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Her reports for the magazine were compiled into a book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” published in 1963.
Arendt famously insisted that Eichmann “had no motives at all” and that he “never realized what he was doing.” That evil, Arendt argued, originates in the neediness of lonely, alienated bourgeois people who live lives so devoid of higher meaning that they give themselves fully to movements. It is the meaning Eichmann finds as part of the Nazi movement that leads him to do anything and sacrifice everything. Such joiners are not stupid; they are not robots. But they are thoughtless in the sense that they abandon their independence, their capacity to think for themselves, and instead commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement.
Arendt’s insisted we see Eichmann as a terrifyingly normal “déclassé son of a solid middle-class family” who was radicalized by an idealistic anti-state movement.
But she did not mean that he wasn’t aware of the Holocaust or the Final Solution. She knew that once the Führer decided on physical liquidation, Eichmann embraced that decision. What she meant was that he acted thoughtlessly and dutifully, not as a robotic bureaucrat, but as part of a movement, as someone convinced that he was sacrificing an easy morality for a higher good.
Margaretha von Trotta’s film is not a documentary, but it incorporates archival footage of the trial. The director felt the footage was essential because it let the viewer encounter Eichmann directly.
Nearly every major literary and philosophical figure in New York chose sides in what the writer Irving Howe called a “civil war” among New York intellectuals — a war, he later predicted, that might “die down, simmer,” but will perennially “erupt again.”

This time, a new critical consensus is emerging, one that at first glimpse might seem to resolve the debates of a half century ago. This new consensus holds that Arendt was right in her general claim that many evildoers are normal people but was wrong about Eichmann in particular. 

Hannah Arendt in her Manhattan apartment, 1972.
 Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) was one of the most influential political philosophers of the twentieth century. Born into a German-Jewish family, she was forced to leave Germany in 1933 and lived in Paris for the next eight years, working for a number of Jewish refugee organisations. In 1941 she immigrated to the United States and soon became part of a lively intellectual circle in New York. She held a number of academic positions at various American universities until her death in 1975. She is best known for two works that had a major impact both within and outside the academic community. The first, The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, was a study of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes that generated a wide-ranging debate on the nature and historical antecedents of the totalitarian phenomenon. The second, The Human Condition, published in 1958, was an original philosophical study that investigated the fundamental categories of the vita activa (labor, work, action). In addition to these two important works, Arendt published a number of influential essays on topics such as the nature of revolution, freedom, authority, tradition and the modern age. At the time of her death in 1975, she had completed the first two volumes of her last major philosophical work, The Life of the Mind, which examined the three fundamental faculties of the vita contemplativa (thinking, willing, judging).

Arendt published the most controversial work of her career in 1963 with Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt covered Eichmann’s trial in Isreal as a correspondent for The New Yorker in 1960, when Isreali security forces had captured the S.S. lieutenant colonel responsible for the transportation of Jews to death camps. Eichmann in Jerusalem is the collection of revised articles from her coverage of the trial. According to her text, Eichmann had not had a sadistic will to do evil, but had been thoughtless; he had failed to think about what he was doing. Her concept of the banality of evil caused considerable friction between herself and the organized Jewish community, as her book was read by some as an elevation of Eichmann’s character and a questioning of Jewish innocence. Arendt was concerned that the ability to act according to conscience and rational thought was becoming obscured by partisanship and nationalism, combined with modernization. Most of her writing studies the sense of a shared world and the possibilities of freedom grounded therein.

Winner of Lola Award (German Oscar) for Best Actress for Barbara Sukowa and Silver Lola (2nd prize) for Best Film