After the Storm (2016)

 (Umi yori mo mada fukaku)

Unrated. Running Time: 1 hour 57 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 0; Language 1; Sex 1; Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Can Ethiopians change their skin or leopards their spots?

Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.

Jeremiah 13:23

 Famly

A broken family due to the father’s failure to grow up.
(c) Film Movement

In Japanese director/writer Hirokazu Koreeda’s film, set in the small city Kiyose just outside of Tokyo, there are two storms, an oncoming one, and a past storm in the life of Shinoda Ryôta (Hiroshi Abe). The one was in his past, the emotional storm enveloping him and his wife Shiraishi Kyôko (Yoko Make) that resulted in her divorcing him. The second is a typhoon that TV weathermen have been warning about for the past few days.

Once an aspiring, award winning writer, Ryôta has not been able to write anything since that first novel of 15 years ago. He has been eking out a living by working at a detective agency. With his younger partner Machida (Sosuke Ikematsu), he follows wayward spouses and takes photographs of them for use in divorce cases. He justifies his sleazy work by claiming to be doing research for his next novel.

Ryôta is months behind on his child support payments. His relatively small salary would barely be enough for living and making payments, but he also cannot resist gambling at the bicycle races and a pachinko parlor. No matter how much he loses, he keeps borrowing from his partner and from his sister Chinatsu (Satomi Kobayashi) for further bets. After the death of his father, he makes a rare visit to his mother Shinoda Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki) in her small apartment in a public housing project to snoop around for any valuable items he can pawn. All he finds are some pawn tickets and his father’s old ink stone. His mother tells him that has given away almost everything, that she is far better off now, feeling a sense of freedom that she had never known before. From her remarks and the pawn tickets we can see that father and son were far too much alike in her eyes.

Some of the best scenes are between mother and son. Early on she points to a small tangerine tree that he had planted during his childhood, and observes to him, “It doesn’t flower or bear fruit, but I water it every day like it’s you.” When the tree became a home for caterpillars, she saw one turn into a butterfly. “So, it’s useful for something,” she remarks.  Ryôta wistfully repeats, “I’m useful for something.” “I’m the great talent that blooms late,” he continues. “Well you’re taking too long,” she replies. “Hurry up, or I’ll haunt you.”

Ryôta, to his credit, does want to keep his relationship with his 11-year-old son Shiraishi Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa). He uses his primary detective tool, a pair of binoculars, to spy on his wife and son, feeling especially upset when he finds the two with her new boyfriend at a baseball game in which the boy is playing. Though overbearing, the boyfriend is taking an interest in the boy. The cash-struck father had wanted to give Shingo a baseball mitt, but he sees the man has already done this. Worried that he now has a serious rival, he later asks Shiraishi to report to him on how his mother and boyfriend are getting along and whether this is a serious relationship.

Kyôko is so upset with her ex-husbands continual failure to pay her child support that she threatens to refuse him time with the boy. This might not be a bad idea, because we see the father use some of his scarce funds to buy several lottery tickets and give them to Shingo. He tells him they are his, but that because he paid for them, they will split the winnings. Is this the start of the boy traveling down the same road? Elsewhere Yoshiko tells Ryôta that his father was just like him, and she does not mean this as a compliment.

Still hoping to win back his wife and son, Ryôta and his mother hatch a scheme that brings him, Kyôko, and Shingo to Yoshiko’s apartment where the latter invites them to stay for supper. Reluctantly, Kyôko agrees. The typhoon is about to start, so then they talk her into staying overnight until the storm has passed. It turns out to be quite a time for all of them, though the outcome is not the same as it would have been in an American movie (think The Parent Trap), making this a more poignant and realistic film.

Ryôta is a character so flawed that it is difficult to like him. Besides his obsessive gambling and wheedling of money, he also steals from his mother. He even shakes down one of the subjects he has been spying on as a detective, accepting money from an adulterous spouse in exchange for his destroying the incriminating photos and promising to show his client just the innocuous ones. However, I felt better about him during the stormy night when Shingo asks his father if he is the man he had wanted to become when he was a boy. Ryoto replies that he is not, but that he is trying to become what he had wanted to be. He seems to be struggling to accept his responsibility as a parent and a grown-up man.

Hirokazu Koreeda explores the broken life of a Japanese family in both a dramatic and humorous way (with the delightful mother providing most of the latter), bringing out well the universal theme of not living up to one’s early promise. Kyôko is as much a failure as Willy Loman, but there is a faint hope at the end that, whether or not he writes again, he might become a better human being than when we first met him–especially after the pawnshop owner reveals something he had not known about his father. Maybe Ryôta will be able, as his mother had urged, to let go of his Peter Pan ways and move on with his life.

This review with a set of questions will be in the May 2017 issue of VP. Please consider supporting this site by going to The Store and buying a single issue or a year’s subscription.

Max Rose (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 23 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 5; Sex/Nudity  2.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eyes waste away because of grief;
they grow weak because of all my foes.

Psalm 6:6-7

maxgrandd

Max dines out with his granddaughter & son. (c) Paladin

Writer/ director Daniel Noah’s film is a good character study of an elderly man overcome by grief and refusing to be consoled by either his son or granddaughter. Jerry Lewis is superb as the 87-year-old old former jazz pianist whose grief over the loss of Eva (Claire Bloom), his beloved wife of 65 years is so overwhelming that he gives up on life. Then he learns something that motivates him to act because it is so disturbing that he thinks that his marriage had been a sham—this despite the flashbacks to the pair that suggest otherwise.

The discovery follows weeks of Max’s estranged son Chris (Kevin Pollak) and loving granddaughter Annie (Kerry Bishé) trying to comfort him and help him to move on in life. He rejects every and anything that either of them suggest, his words especially to Chris tinged with hostility. Unable to care for himself, he enters an assisted living facility. The attendants try to get him interested in crafts and other activities, but they all seem meaningless to him. The counselor Jenny Flowers (Illeana Douglas) also is unable to stir him. He does enjoy an evening with a couple of other old musicians (this is a magical scene!), but his joyful mood evaporates with the rise of the sun the next day.

Then, while sorting through a box of Eva’s belongings he comes across a locket she has kept. The inscription on it, with the same date on which he had recorded his first song, suggests that she was in love with someone else all those years. He sets out to track the man down. What he finds is the bed-ridden Ben Tracey (Dean Stockwell), an old man in the terminal stages of emphysema—and from him a measure of wisdom, relief, and the awareness that life is too precious to spend it in grief or regret. The masterfully staged scene between the two rivals will remain in your memory for a long time.

With its excellent cast, headed by a talented actor better remembered as a comedian, Daniel Noah offers one more reminder that we not require young and attractive characters to make for a compelling film. At Cannes in 2013 critics dismissed the film as a muddled mess, but now, recut, it is easily comprehensible, demonstrating the need for truth and the support of others to make life worth living.

 This review with a set of questions will be in the Nov. 2016 issue of VP.

My Life (1993)

Reprinted from the Dec. 1993 issue of VP to accompany the review of the

documentary Gleason.

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 57 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 0; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 

Damn everything but the circus!

e. e. cummings

MyLif

A good film for couples to see together, My Life will remind some of Love Story and other such end-of-life tales. Fortunately this one has Michael Keaton, whose excellent performance as Bob Jones prevents the pathos from sliding into bathos. His use of a camcorder to tell his yet-to-be-born son about himself provides many humorous moments, and also serves as a means for him to connect with his wife (Nicole Kidman) and his estranged family.

He has been running from his family in Detroit all his adult life. Moving as far away as possible to Los Angeles, he changes his Polish last name to Jones. His journey toward physical death actually becomes a journey toward life, of reconciliation and affirmation.

If you liked Field of Dreams, you should enjoy this story with a resurrection theme. There’s a colorful scene toward the end that called to mind a line from an e.e. cummings poem–“Damn everything but the circus!”

Until fairly recent times the church and society prepared people to face their death. Manuals were written on how to die; even the popular song “Jesus Loves Me” was part of a story about a dying girl, written in the 19th century to inspire and help children. My Life could serve a similar function for an adult or youth group today.

Look for: Signs of freedom and acceptance-Bob lets go of the bar on the roller coaster. The backyard “circus.”

For discussion: What is a miracle? How does what happens to Bob Jones contribute to your understanding of “miracle”?

Further food for thought: Bob’s comment “Dying is a hard way to learn about life!” Note the ending-instead of a fade to black screen there is a fade to white- any significance?

Sony Home Entertainment

Knight of Cups (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 58 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country,

and there he squandered his property in dissolute living…But when he came to himself…

Luke 15:13,17a

Sunburst

Our “knight” is seen on numerous beaches, as well as crowded streets, parties, and night spots. (c) Broadgreen Films

I found Terence Malick’s newest film even more difficult to follow than his Tree of Life or To the Wonder. Even his more traditional narrative films The Thin Red Line and The New World were a challenge to viewers accustomed to the fast pace of most American films, but now even Malick fans like myself are bound to be puzzled by this latest stream of conscious-like film. In my case this is compounded by the constant use of voice-overs whispering so low that my hearing-impaired ears could not pick up many of the words. For me this was an almost totally visual experience—and fortunately the gorgeous camera work Emmanuel Lubezki, who has not only worked on three previous Malick films, but also such grand ones as The Revenant, Gravity, and Birdman, catches the beauty of numerous beaches, sunsets, and the colorful spectacles of the casinos of Las Vegas, and even a strip club. Even were you to turn the soundtrack off, this film would be a richly rewarding visual meditation.

With good reason we hear a quotation from John Bunyan’s spiritual classic Pilgrim’s Progress early on, because the main character Rick (Christian Bale) is shown almost constantly in motion, a modern pilgrim walking amidst pitfalls and barriers that continually threaten or lead him astray. He is a Hollywood scriptwriter who was unable to love enough his first wife, a doctor named Nancy (Cate Blanchett).

The voice of his estranged father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) recites a story he had told Rick and his two brothers when they were children: “Once there was a young prince whose father, the king of the East, sent him down into Egypt to find a pearl. But when the prince arrived, the people poured him a cup. Drinking it, he forgot he was the son of a king, forgot about the pearl and fell into a deep sleep.” Thus Rick is the modern counterpart to that prince, seduced by the false values of his Hollywood culture. At one point he says, “All those years, living the life of someone I didn’t know.”

Along with scenes of love and debauchery at parties and in luxurious hotel suites with the six women in his life, we see him quarreling with his father and dealing with his brother Barry (Wes Bentley). There had been a second brother, but in some manner not revealed to us, he had died–possibly by suicide, because the death had deeply wounded the father and two remaining sons. (One scene shows the father washing his bloody hands in a bowl.)

Rick has dabbled in other religions–Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Tarot, and it is a card from the last which gives the film it’s strange name, apparently a reference to the prince or “knight” in the father’s story. It is the Christianity into which he was born that Malick seems to be inferring lies the balm for Rick’s starved soul, desperately looking for healing or fulfillment. Joseph is somewhat like the father in Jesus’ Parable of the Father and Two Sons. They may have quarreled strongly in the past, but he does not give up on his wayward son. Although at one moment feeling damned himself, he says to Rick, “”My son, I know you. I know you have a soul.” Thus Rick finds himself saying such things as “We’re not leading the lives we’re meant for. We’re meant for something else.” And more than once he asks, “Which way should I go? How do I begin?”

Earlier on, after his desert trek, it is a strong earthquake shaking his Santa Monica apartment that starts Rick on his way back. Indeed, as this was happening theologian Paul Tillich’s famous sermon “The Shaking of the Foundations,” flashed through my mind. It is based on the 6th chapter of Isaiah in which the prophet during a shaking of the temple where he is worshipping is called out of sin to a life of holiness and prophetic service.

A stream of moments from Rick’s debauched past flow by. The women come and go, with it apparent that Nancy was the one whose love for him was strongest, though his latest, with the already married Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), is also intense–Rick now able to really give himself in love to another person. “You have love in you, I know it,” Elizabeth tells him. But their relationship comes to a sad end when she become pregnant, and so unsure of which man in her life is the father is she that she undergoes an abortion.

Rick’s father when grieving over his dead son apparently has found some consolation in the words of his priest Fr. Zeitlinger, “If you are unhappy, you shouldn’t take it as God’s disfavor. Just the contrary. Might be the very sign He loves you. He shows His love not by helping avoid suffering, but by sending you suffering, by keeping you there. To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself, higher than your own will. Takes you from the world to find what lies beyond it.” Thus near the end of the film he urges his son,  “Find the light you knew in the past, as a child…. The light in the eyes of others.” This brings us back to his story of the quest for “the pearl.” At last he has found love in Isabel (Isabel Lucas), who helps him find the light he has been seeking. A baby crawls on a wooden deck. Rick speaks the last word in the film, “Begin.”

I love the way that both Pilgrim’s Progress and the story of the prince/knight and the cup inform this film! The concept of our sinful estate as being a matter of forgetting that we are the son of a king, and thus in need of regaining our memory is a helpful one. It reminds me of the concept of one of the Fathers of the early church who wrote that sinful humanity is like an almost obliterated portrait that stands in need of the talented hand of a Master Artist to restore it.

There is too much packed into Knight of the Cup for any one person to be able to take it all in—at least for this writer. No one should see a Terence Malick film alone, though you must choose your film companion wisely, lest you lose a casual friend, frustrated by having to work hard to “see” the meaning in each scene. This is a film in which my mantra “All of us see more than one of us.” We really need each other’s help—what I missed, you might see; and what you missed, I or another group member, might have seen.

Possessed of a deeply spiritual nature, Terence Malick is not interested in entertaining his viewers, but rather in challenging and expanding their vision. The spiritually lazy or complacent need st ay away, instead taking in the spiritual pap spooned out in so-called faith based films like God Is Not Dead. I am still struggling to understand some of what passed before my uncomprehending eyes, which makes me glad that it will soon be available on disc and streaming video. Although best seen on a large screen because of the gorgeous cinemaphotgraphy, any way you can watch it will prove to be rewarding—if you are ready to work hard at the process of seeing.

This review will be in the April 2016 issue of VP with a set of discussion questions.

The Danish Girl (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 3; Language 4; Sex /Nudity 7.

Our star rating (1-5):5

(Love) bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.  1 Corinthians 13:7-8

PosngWthDress

Einar begins his outward journey to become Lili by posing for his wife Gerda.                                     (c) Focus Features

This remarkable love story will not be for everybody because one of the lovers is a pioneer transgender person. Based on the lives of artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, it takes place in Denmark from 1926 through 1931. The film is fascinating in the way it shows the process of the male Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), a landscape artist, evolving into the woman, Lili,  he feels himself to be inside, and the impact this has on his/her wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander. Einar has gained a measure of fame from his landscapes, but at their studio he keeps painting over and over the row of five trees jutting into the sky near a coastal inlet. Gerda), a portrait artist, is stymied in her career when an art dealer rejects her paintings, telling her that she has talent but needs to find the right subject.

Although no doubt actually beginning long before, it is Gerda who initiates the visible process of  Einar’s transformation when, her model not being available, she asks him to slip on some white silk stockings and ballet slippers so she can work on this portion of a large portrait she is painting of a ballerina. He then places over his clothing the dance costume. Both are pleased by the result, and when time comes to attend a ball, it is Gerda who suggests that Einar, preferring to stay home, accompany her dressed as a woman. She helps with make-up, and with clothing and a wig borrowed from the ballet companies costume collection, Einar becomes Lili, Gerda also coaching him how a woman walks.

At the event, Lili draws a great deal of attention, including that of a young man who approaches her. How all this transpires, leading Einar to actually become a woman is fascinating. His journey takes him to the offices of various doctors, all of whom regard him as a deviant at best and a pervert at worst. During one fruitless consultation he barely escapes from the attendants, carrying a straight jacket, who have been summoned to lock him up.

As Einar lives more and more dressed as Lili, Gerda becomes troubled, uncertain of their relationship, especially when she spies a man kissing the one whom she still considers her husband. Lili, growing more certain that the transformation she feels inwardly must alter their relationship, still loves Gerda, but in a different way. When at last they come upon a physician, Dr. Kurt Warnekros (Sebastian Koch), who agrees that Lili is neither schizophrenic nor a degenerate, the latter feels she has discovered the one who can liberate her from the man’s body she was born into but cannot accept. She agrees to submit to two operations, one to remove her male organs, and a second, after she heals from the first, to install a vagina. Thus she becomes the first person to undergo a sex change operation.

During these years of transformation Lili stops painting because she wants to become a new person. Gerda, however, begins to enjoy great success when Lili becomes her sole subject. The dealer and the public become fascinated with her series of portraits, many of them nude, of a femme fatale. At one exhibit a gushing admirer asks if the model is present, to which Gerda replies, “I’m afraid she’s not here,” despite the fact that Einar, in male clothes, is lurking in the background and enjoying all the hubbub over the works.

Complicating the story is Einar’s boyhood friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) whom Gerta contacts, bringing the two together after many years. He becomes not only a staunch supporter of Lili but also would like his relationship with Gerda to evolve beyond just friendship.

The film, directed by Tom Hooper from the literate script by Lucinda Coxon, delves far more into the unfamiliar territory of divergent gender than the recent Stonewall. Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander are outstanding, totally convincing in their portrayal of the tormented couple. Not to be lost in the exploration of sexual politics and relationships is the theme of devoted love. Although the apostle Paul was writing about agape and not erotic love, his words do apply to this couple striving to cope with their changing relationship, even though he would not have approved of them.

One has to go back to Duncan Tucker’s 2005 film Transamerica to find a film that treats the subject of transgender so sensitively. Those who are quick to condemn people who are “different” need to realize how the Christian Scripture writers never understood how complex both the physical world is, as well as the world of the human psyche. Surely a loving God who always moves beyond boundaries set by humans will understand the torments of a Lili and Gerda Wegener, abused by those filled with hatred borne of their own insecurity. The question is, will we? This film can help us in the quest for a more inclusive, a more loving, society.

Coming Home (2014)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 49 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 1; Language 1; Sex /Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 Love is patient; love is kind…It bears all things, believes all things,

hopes all things, endures all things.

1 Corinthians 13:4 & 7

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Galatians 5:22-23a

PlayPiano

Lu plays an old song in the hope that his amnesiac wife Feng will recognize him again. (c) Sony Pictures Classics

Zhang Yimou, possibly the best known Chinese filmmaker in America (To Live; Not One Less; Riding Alone for a Thousand Miles; and House of Flying Daggers are just a few of his films), directs this adaptation of the novel by Chinese-American  Yan Geling, The Criminal Lu Yanshi. It is a love story, but unlike most movie love stories, its protagonists are not young but middle-aged. During the 70s when Mao’s Cultural Revolution was in full swing college professor Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) is arrested and sent away for “re-education.”

His wife Feng Wanyu (Gong Li), a middle school teacher, raises their daughter Dan Dan by herself, receiving no word from her husband for years. During this time Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen) becomes a ballet student with her heart set on playing the lead of the propaganda ballet The Red Detachment of Women soon to be produced.

However, because her father is “an enemy of the state” she is passed over for a less talented student. She is hurt, her resentment of her absent father growing ever stronger. He escapes and during one rainy night sneaks into their rund-down tenement building. No one answers the door, so he leaves a note for his wife asking her to meet him the next day at the train station. His wife is inside, but she walks slowly, hesitantly across the kitchen floor, the stern warnings of the police against any contact with her husband no doubt the cause.

Dan Dan spots him and betrays him to the police who have posted a watcher outside their tenament. The next day Lu hides beneath the stairs of a platform at the train station while he anxiously keeps a lookout for his wife. When after a long period of scanning the crowds for a glimpse of her, he emerges from his hiding place and starts shouting her name. Above him among the throng she hears him, but so do the police. She yells for him to run, but they seize him, keeping the two apart. During her frantic struggles she is shoved to the ground, injuring her head.

Years later Lu is let out of prison, eagerly hastening to reunite with Feng. He sees Dan Dan first, no longer a ballet student but now living in a factory dormitory. Remorseful over her betrayal, the girl lives apart from her mother. She is on a short break, and asks to see him later, that there is something important he should know. Lu does not wait to find out, but goes to find his wife. To has amazement and sorrow she does not recognize him. She lives aided by neighbors, and on a certain date of each month goes to the train station expecting her husband’s arrival from prison.

Lu tries various means of reviving her memory, showing her an old photograph of the two of them, playing a song from the old days on the piano, and reading the stack of letters that he had written in prison but had been unable to send to her. At times she not only does not recognize him as her husband but gets him mixed up with Mr. Fang, the Party official involved in his arrest and conviction. She orders him out of her home. Lu sorrowfully complies.

During this period Lu lives just across the street from his wife in a storage room only half-transformed into living quarters. Dan Dan helps him all she can, her self-centeredness having melted away. When Lu finds out why his wife is so obsessed by the memory of Mr. Fang, he almost does something that would have sent him back to prison, but an ironic twist saves him.

The years pass, and the two help the increasingly frail Feng perform what has become a ritual—going with her to the gate of the train station where they hold up signs welcoming the husband home. The devotion of all three is impressive: Feng to the husband of the past whom she cannot recognize in the present, and for whom she made a great sacrifice; Lu to the wife he hopes to regain in the future, finally aware of his identity; and Dan Dan devoted to them both, painfully aware of and regretting the terrible thing she did that has brought on their present status.

Of the three Dan Dan changes the most, her journey from a self-centeredness that takes no heed of the needs of others to a concern for her parents welfare that will impede any chance for her own advancement in life—at least as long as they are alive. From ballet stage to factory floor, quite a downward turn career-wise. And yet, eyewitness to the patience and love of her father and mother, Dan Dan’s transformation into an other-concerned human being prevents this poignant story from being a tragedy. The ending is so poignant that you are warned to have a tissue on hand. In regard to love and devotion it might not be exaggerating too much to say that this is a love story for the older generation as is Romeo and Juliet for the young generation.

This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the Nov. issue of VP.

Phoenix (2014)

German with English subtitles

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 38 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek;

you will strengthen their heart,

you will incline your ear to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed,

so that those from earth may strike terror no more.

Psalm 10:17-18

Phoenix Ronald Zehrfeld Nina Hoss

Johnny & his wife Nelly, who with her new face he does not recognize, leave the Phoenix Café.          (c) 2014 Sundance Selects

Director Christian Petzold’s devastating film Phoenix is like a Post Holocaust film noir. As we will see, the title takes on a double meaning as the stark story of two survivors unfolds. The film begins in 1945 just after the end of WW 2, with two women traveling at night from the Auschwitz death camp to Berlin. Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf), a survivor working as a clerk in the Hall of Jewish Records, is bringing back to the city her just liberated friend Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss). She explains to a curious G.I. guard at a bridge checkpoint that her injured companion, is a concentration camp survivor. He still demands that Nelly unfold the blood-stained bandages around her head so he can see her face. Taken aback by the damage that he sees inflicted by a Nazi bullet, he quickly passes them on.

Safe in a lake-side apartment where a middle-aged German woman cares for them and the apartment, Lene, with some degree of hesitation, informs Nelly that her German husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) has survived the war—but that he might be the one who betrayed her. He was arrested and tortured the day before she was found, and then he was released afterward, so he might have given away her hiding place—a compartment in a boat docked at their lake home. Nelly enters a clinic where the plastic surgeon says he can give her a new face. Being a German, he refers to the faces of two movie stars popular during the Hitler regime. Nelly insists on being restored to her former features. This will be “difficult,” he informs her due to the intense damage inflicted by the bullet. What results from his labor is a face still marred by huge black patches around her eyes, but apparently very different from her original countenance.

Lene has her heart set on escaping the horrible memories of the camps by the two of them going to Israel. Lene believes that as survivors they have a legacy of supporting a place safe for Jews where such things can never happen again. She has some funds on which they are now living, and Nelly will have even more when she can claim her family inheritance. However, Nelly determines to search for Johnny, the best clue given her being to go to the clubs in the American sector of the occupied city. She had been a singer and he a pianist before the war. The city is still filled with rubble, the house where she and Johnny had lived being a brick-strewn vacant lot between its undestroyed neighboring buildings. It is at the club with the emblazoned name of PHOENIX that Nelly catches her first sight of Johnny. Instead of playing music as in the past, he is now a unkempt looking bus boy, clearing away dishes while a pair of naughty frauleins on the small stage entertain the guests. He does not recognize Nelly the first time.

But then, seeing some resemblance to his dead wife, he proposes to Nelly that she assume the role of Nelly so that together they can put in a claim for the inheritance. He offers to split it, she receiving $20 K, with him coaching her. Nelly holds back revealing her identity, instead accompanying him to the dingy basement apartment where he lives. Alternating between lodgings, she spends her waking hours supposedly practicing Nelly’s handwriting and physical moves. During part of this time the dissatisfied Lene is out of town on business. Johnny talks a lot about his wife, but does not go into the details of the arrests. He tries to have Nelly stay indoors all the time because he fears that former friends might spot her—though how they would recognize her when he didn’t, he does not explain. His plan is to take her east, out of the city and then to have her re-enter Berlin by train, where at the station he and a gathering of surviving friends would greet her and go to a welcome home party.

Like all film noirs, there are surprises as the characters become entwined in their plans. One development explains why Johnny needs a live Nelly to claim the family fortune, rather than just show up as the surviving husband. And another, even more shocking surprise, brings out into the open the cloud of despair that clung to so many Holocaust survivors. As Lene says, she can see their past, but not the future.

The filmmakers provide an ambiguous climax that leaves it to the audience to draw its own conclusion as to Nelly and Johnny’s future. It involves her calculated singing the haunting song for the guests, Kurt Weil and Ogden Nash’s “Speak Low.” With Johnny seated at the piano, Nelly starts out with sort of a raspy whisper, bursting forth into the full melody by the time she has reached “When you speak love/Our moment is swift/like ships adrift,/We’re swept apart/Too soon/Speak low/Darling speak low.” It is the perfectly chosen song for what has happened to her and Johnny during the war. With his face showing dawning recognition, he stops playing midway through the performance, staring at her. What she does when she finishes the song will leave you troubled, maybe, but also perhaps hopeful. (I strongly recommend that after you see the film, you Google the title to see the lyrics and listen to them. Tony Bennett’s version is at http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/tonybennett/speaklow.html.The second, mythological meaning of phoenix comes to mind as we think of the ashes of Berlin and of the lives lost in the ovens. Lene hopes for a rebirth of them both in Palestine where more and more Jews are settling every day. Contrarily, Nelly sees a possible rebirth of her marriage to Johnny, but then…Whatever rebirth she is able to enter into, it will be a different sort of phoenix for her, one as different as her present face is from the one of her past.

This review with a set of discussion questions is in the September issue of VP.