Here’s another candidate for the best of 2015. Cristian Petzold’s Phoenix is great. So restrained and tense, it also reaffirms that Nina Hoss is one of the best actors currently working.
It’s best to go into this film without much knowledge of the plot, so suffice to say that it’s a noirish post-WWII dramatic thriller.
The strength in Petzold’s film, writing and acting aside, is his calm, efficient way of handling scenes. Efficient doesn’t always sound like a huge compliment, but here it’s meant to be. Scenes are no frills and that just adds to the tension: the camera has no life of its own, it doesn’t move unless specifically motivated, and it doesn’t strive to imbue a scene with any additional meaning. It’s there to starkly frame and to capture the expert blocking as its lain out. In a similar vein of nuance, much of the primary action of Phoenix happens off-screen (WWII, for example), as do many of the smaller, but important moments (a possible rape early in the film).
I have a real admiration for this kind of filmmaking which is subtle, non-operatic, and frankly, pretty anti filmmaking in many parts of the world today. Even the penchant for long static wides, which has become the modus operandi of several modern styles, is on the verge of becoming showy.
Petzold’s style is old-school, but not even old-school Hollywood or German. It’s sort of the meeting between those aforementioned long static wides and a classic Hollywood director.
Case-in-point: there’s a really, really fantastic ending to this film that I obviously won’t divulge. Let’s just say that it entails one man’s realization. Since Phoenix has often been compared to Vertigo it’s apt to say that, were Hitchcock directing this film, there would most definitely be a romantic push-in, or at least calculated CU on him. Petzold stays at a relative distance, let’s the scene and performances carry themselves, and also thereby allows the actor a long moment in which to use his full body in a very difficult, silent moment. It’s one of the best endings to a film I’ve seen in awhile.
Of course it’s hard to watch a Berlin School director’s film about post-war enmities and not think to a New Cinema director’s films about the same thing. Petzold’s style is far distanced from Fassbinder’s, but there’s a moment (for slightly different motivations, I think) also at the end of Phoenix where a group of Petzold’s characters are frozen, almost magically or comically. It’s something that we see often in Fassbinder, and though Petzold’s may be so still in confusion, embarrassment, or guilt, whereas Fassbinder’s more so to extend a hostile moment (read: Petzold’s for real narrative reasons, Fassbinder’s for purely cinematic reasons), there’s a definite line of succession there.
Tom Shoval’s Youth is a curious animal. It’s an Israeli thriller that doesn’t really dwell on Arab-Israeli conflict, though that certainly hovers around it in subtext and at least one direct line of dialogue.
The film is fast-paced and has some great, intense performances. It’s edge-of-your seat for a good deal of the 2nd act, and is the superior to something like Big Bad Wolves, with which Youth has several things in common, for its heart and social awareness.
But Youth also falls into the “dumb criminals” trap. There are two scenes where brothers Shaul and Yaki (Eitan and David Cunio: real life brothers) make such cringeworthy decisions involving a bus trip and a photograph. Whether or not those mistakes come back to haunt them or not, they feel like cheap suspense: cheap in that these two seem to be putting some effort into their plan. Why not touch on these basics, too?
That said, Youth has something on its mind, and one of those things is also clearly the impact of violent American movies on these Israeli young men. The film is covered with American movie T-shirts, Nicholas Cage “appears”, either on clothing or in voice, at least twice in the film. This isn’t a blame-game strategy, but rather, perhaps, the emergence of a new Israeli culture and identity.