Monday, October 5, 2015

Bringing Home the Ashes

The German-language post-war drama PHOENIX has, in its United States' run, become one of the bonafide sleeper successes of the year. As of this writing, during its eleventh week of domestic release, it has grossed over $3 million despite, at its largest break, only playing in 197 theatres nationwide. Its current standing on the Rotten Tomatoes website is "Certified Fresh" with a 99% critical approval rating from 84 counted reviews, and an audience approval rating of 82%. While it was not submitted as Germany's entry for this year's Academy Awards (as was Petzold's previous film BARBARA), it will likely be receiving placement on many year-end Best lists, including mine.

Most reviews of PHOENIX take the trouble to note that the film's source material comes from the novel RETURN FROM THE ASHES, by French pulp writer Hubert Monteilhet. Some have gone further to note the book was previously adapted into an English-language film of the same name in 1965. A film which I cited as one of my most favorite older film discoveries in 2011, as I submitted to Brian Saur's excellent Rupert Pupkin Speaks blog. And those stories that mention those facts offer cursory note that PHOENIX makes significant changes to the original plot. But almost none of the reviews have gone into direct detail into the various and interesting differences between these three incarnations of the story. Reading reviews of the earlier film may provide a few answers. Trying to find a detailed review of the original novel is currently an near-impossible task.

Thus, because I am guessing there is at least one other person who is like me and wants to know about these things, I'm stepping in to answer as many of them as I can.

"...memory makes arbitrary choices."

Hubert Monteilhet
Author Hubert Monteilhet (pronounced "mone-tay-yay"), as of this writing, still has no significant English-language biographical profile. But upon skimming his French Wikipedia with my pharmacie-level comprehension, I can tell you that the still-active and prolific author made his reputation in lurid crime fiction, beginning with THE PRAYING MANTISES in 1960. His work was often compared to his breakout countrymen Boileau-Narcejac, whose stories provided the source material for DIABOLIQUE, VERTIGO, and BODY PARTS. RETURN FROM THE ASHES was his second book, first published in French in 1961, with English translation published in 1963. Though dismissed as "an unbelievable novel" by The New York Times, it was popular enough that Henri-Georges Clouzot, director of DIABOLIQUE, originally optioned the film rights, before relinquishing them to producer Walter Mirisch and British director J. Lee Thompson, who adapted it to film in 1965, with CASABLANCA co-writer Julius J. Epstein writing the screenplay. Monteilhet would ultimately chide Epstein's numerous changes to his story in his later novel A PERFECT CRIME OR TWO, where a fictionalized version of himself served as its protagonist. Another Monteilhet novel, MURDER AT LEISURE, was adapted by equally prolific French filmmaker and crime story enthusiast Claude Chabrol into his 1972 dark comedy DR. POPAUL with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Mia Farrow, released in America in 1981 under the title HIGH HEELS. And his debut novel THE PRAYING MANTISES would be adapted into a Channel 4 production (aired on PBS' "MYSTERY") by UK TV writer Philip Mackie and THE MEDUSA TOUCH director Jack Gold, starring Jonathan Pryce. In the '80's, Monteilheit began to focus more on historical fiction and fantasy stories for his books, though he has still written the kinds of mysteries that made him famous. He has also steered into food criticism for a major French publication, sometimes even putting "gourmet" themes into his later crime stories. It's fair to say any French citizen who is able to simultaneously indulge in art and food, then write at length about it, and get paid for it all, has hit the trifecta.

Monteilhet's original novel of ASHES unfolds as a series of diary entries by its protagonist, Elizabeth Wolf, a Jewish doctor specializing in X-ray therapy, over the span of four months in 1945, when she returns to Paris after almost two years as a prisoner in a concentration camp. After initially meeting with fellow doctor and former lover Dr. Pierre Bigan, she is relieved to discover that her gentile husband Stan and her daughter from a previous marriage Fabienne are alive, but initially resists contacting them, wanting time to repair her appearance from the ordeal of the camps, both physically and mentally. During this period, Stan approaches her, but does not recognize her as his wife; in turn, she creates an alternate identity for herself as "Julia Robinson," a former actress, to the point of conversing with Stan in English rather than French to sell the ruse. As she contemplates when and how to tell him the truth, he makes her a shocking proposition: publicly impersonate his believed-dead wife, in order to assist him and Fabienne to claim a large inheritance due her from all the other Wolf relatives who did not survive the Holocaust. To her own bigger shock, she accepts; much like the wife in Kate Bush's "Babooshka", she cannot resist the curiosity of trying to woo her husband a second time, and the morbid desire to know what he and Fabi really thought about her during her absence. As she goes through the steps to impersonate herself, she is confronted with the long-ignored hostilities of her daughter, the possibility that Stan may have been responsible for her arrest and internment by the Nazis, and the question of what will happen after this plan is over...

"...I'm not going to ruin myself to perfect a disguise that's stifling me."

J. Lee Thompson
While producer Walter Mirisch and director J. Lee Thompson certainly saw the same cracking potential of adapting ASHES to film as Henri-Georges Clouzot did, the project could almost be compared to Elizabeth's devil's bargain in regards to why it was done. As Mirisch recounted in his memoir I THOUGHT WE WERE MAKING MOVIES, NOT HISTORY, United Artists, the producer's longtime studio home, had for years taken advantage of a U.K.-based postwar industrial tax incentive -- the "Eady Plan" -- which allowed producers to write off the production budget of a film shot in England if 80% of the crew was English, funding subsidized by a de facto tax on movie tickets. The idea was to keep British below-the-line film technicians employed, and ersatz British films in U.K. theatres, similar to the Canadian tax shelter phenomenon of "Canuxploitation" in the '70's and '80's that launched the careers of David Cronenberg and Ivan Reitman, and seeded the evolution of John Dunning & Andre Link's genre company Cinepix into the franchise-heavy conglomerate Lionsgate. It was an influence on Kubrick's decision to shoot LOLITA in England, and stay put thereafter. And with the novel's essentially confined terrain of regionally vague exteriors and period interiors, and Thompson's desire to work in his home country after a grueling American sojourn, it struck UA as an opportunity to take advantage of the circumstances.

Despite these cavalier origins, Thompson's adaptation from Epstein's screenplay is an underrated gem. Swedish actress Ingrid Thulin, who was cast at the last minute after an abrupt departure by original star Gina Lollobrigida, handles the tough task of selling her character (renamed Mischa Wolf) as a woman who knows she's in love with a bad man, but can only find the fire to care about life through her involvement with him. Samantha Eggar, in one of her earliest roles as Fabi (altered to Mischa's stepdaughter), also has a tricky act to sell, beefing up what was a (perhaps deliberately) underwritten character in the book with a mixture of brattiness and buried hurt, unable to muster interest for her parent's war ordeal because in better days, she could not muster interest in her. And notably, there is a rare showcase for Herbert Lom to portray a dignified hero instead of one his many flamboyant villains, playing Elisabeth's former lover and one trustworthy confidante (renamed Dr. Bovard), another character elevated from a more tertiary role in the book. If there is a fault to be found with this film, it is that once Maximillian Schell appears on screen as Stan, he pretty much steals the focus of the movie away from its primary lead (but third-billed star) Thulin. As I observed in my short valediction for Saur's blog, Schell's performance as the heelish yet honest opportunist she can't stop loving contains all the seeds of charming caddery that made Hans Landa so memorable in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (where Christoph Waltz similarly steals that movie away from top-billed Brad Pitt), and since it was through Quentin Tarantino's influence that I first saw the film in 2011, I had been firm in my belief that he and Waltz modeled Landa's character from whole snatches of Schell's performance, until I received confirmation from Tarantino himself that he'd not seen the film until after BASTERDS had been completed.

However, what UA's publicity department wanted to sell most about RETURN FROM THE ASHES was not great performances, or the challenging setting of a Holocaust survivor walking into another potential death trap, but instead, the promise of a big shocking surprise. UA had previously attached a disclaimer at the end of Billy Wilder's 1957 film of WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION admonishing viewers not to spoil the film's surprises to their friends, and in the wake of Alfred Hitchcock's success of coaxing theatres to forbid late arrivals to PSYCHO, plenty of other films sought to build upon that gimmick, notably Hitchcock's rival William Castle and his "Fright Break" before the conclusion of HOMICIDAL in 1961. So UA VP James Velde sent this directive to the cinemas: "We are fully aware that we cannot impose a rigid exhibition policy on motion-picture theatres, but because of the extraordinary suspense qualities of this fascinating and dramatic film, we are urging that exhibitors subscribe to the following policy: 'No one may enter the theater after Fabi enters her bath.'" While one can understand the logic of trying to sell a cool, dry mystery with a hot, wet girl, the strategy did not pay off: ASHES returned only modest numbers before essentially languishing in obscurity until this decade, when it received its first-ever home video release via a Burn-On-Demand DVD-R from MGM, followed by streaming availability at Amazon and other VOD venues.

"...I caress the idea of a final return which would round everything out."

Incredibly, PHOENIX is not the first time Monteilehet's book has been revisited. A remake was first done for French television in 1982, titled LE RETOUR D'ELISABETH WOLFF, directed by Josée Dayan and adapted by Dayan with ARTEMESIA screenwriter Christine Miller and SUNDAYS AND CYBELE star Malka Ribowska, with Ribowska as Elisabeth, MEETING VENUS and A PROPHET star Niels Arestrup as Stan, and Clémentine Amouroux as Fabi. Again, there is almost nothing immediately available on this production that states anything aside from the fact that it exists, so its faithfulness to the book is unknown. More interestingly, in 2011, a stage play rendition of RETURN FROM THE ASHES written by playwright Brad Geagley received its World Premiere in Beverly Hills. Reviews of the play, while careful to keep its secrets, suggest that it hewed closer to the original novel than any previous adaptation, with the large exception of making secondary character Dr. Bigan, previously just Elisabeth's former lover, into a full ex-husband and father of Fabienne. So, to my surprise as well as most other fans of PHOENIX, M. Monteilheit's book has had a striking amount of quiet longevity in the period between its release and PHOENIX's production.

Christian Petzold
It was initially the late German/Arabic film writer and U.C. Berkeley professor Harun Farocki who, by referencing ASHES in a longform essay on Hitchcock's VERTIGO for the magazine Filmkritik in the mid-'80's, spurred the interest of writer/director Christian Petzold, a close friend, to read the novel; at the time, while both enjoyed the book, neither could determine how to apply the film's story to a German setting, and set it aside. In 2007, after reading Ludger Schwarte's book LEAVING THE CAMP, the Alexander Kluge short story "A LOVE EXPERIMENT", and viewing previously-unavailable documentary footage of Auschwitz shot by Hitchcock, the writers felt they finally found a narrative idea to transplant the material. They decided to use the book as a launch point to explore the almost complete disappearance of German art during and after the Nazis, and the desire of all the wars' survivors, victims and collaborators alike, to reconstitute themselves, be it in elements of the past, or in a new configuration.

The screenplay for PHOENIX by Petzold and Farocki makes a significant number of changes and omissions to Monteilhet's book. Besides transposing the story from Paris to Berlin, the protagonists are now named Nelly and Johnny (with Nelly taking the alter ego of "Esther" when impersonating herself), and instead of being a doctor and a chess player, they are both former stage entertainers. The initial reconstructive surgery is given much more stark depiction than before: where in the previous incarnations her character returns merely looking haunted (the book does reference "the consequences of a brutal gun-butt" on her face), and is given only minor touch-ups such as a nose job, our first look at Nelly is her head swaddled in bandages, the result of a bullet wound, requiring extensive facial reconstruction, the finished results not shown until much later. Most notably, the character of Fabienne and her subplot of romantic rivalry with her mother has been completely excised. Elizabeth's still-smitten medical colleague Dr. Bigan has an effective surrogate in Nelly's close friend, war survivor turned relief worker Lene Winter; while not expressly delineated as a lesbian, Lene's behavior towards Nelly often suggests an unexpressed and unrequited longing, and in turn, as Elizabeth frequently ignores Bigan's warnings about Stan's treachery, Nelly is prone to rebuff Lene's cautions about Johnny. There is definitely less interest in the deception and gamesmanship involved in the lovers' exchanges that permeated previous versions of ASHES, replaced instead by a constant depiction of denials - Johnny denying that Esther is really his wife, Nelly denying that Johnny could betray her, other citizens craving normalcy in order to deny a horrible chapter of humanity has just taken place. Besides the cited nod to Hitchcock, the film makes recurrent and clever use of Kurt Weill's song "Speak Low" to hint at emotional turns and address the survivors' sense of loss. I suspect the rechristening of the male lead's name to Johnny is homage to another infamous Weill antihero, the heartless pipesmoker "Surabaya Johnny" created for his 1929 musical HAPPY END.

By my calculus, Petzold's PHOENIX is a better film than Thompson's RETURN FROM THE ASHES, and by default, better than the original novel. The post-war trauma that is introduced in ASHES, while thoughtful, is ultimately just extra set dressing for an entertaining but not exceptional spin on DIABOLIQUE and the "who's going to die last" question to which all such stories boil down, whereas PHOENIX reaches elevation by flipping the question instead to become "how do you go on living." In the manner of Coppola with Mario Puzo or P.T. Anderson with Upton Sinclair, Petzold keenly takes escapist pulp and expands upon it to depict characters, and thus a nation, that for decades, lost the very notion of pulp, pop culture, and escape. In an interview with Canadian Jewish News, the director said that when modern German creatives ask, "‘Where are the comedies? Why don’t we have musicals or genres like film noir?’ It’s because we destroyed [them].” PHOENIX, as title and as film, has been interpreted by different viewers to mean that Germany, or Israel, or art, or love, or one woman, arises from the dust left behind by unthinkable destruction, demonstrating how such an time-and-place specific tale as conceived by its filmmakers can reach beyond to a universal audience.

In short, I heartily recommend reading the book and seeing both films, but I am very confident that of these three things, you'll have the most animated conversations about PHOENIX.

And now, it's time to reveal all the secrets of the works in question. Consider this the metaphorical "Fabi in the bathtub" moment. I'd really rather you partake of all these works as I did with fresh eyes, but if you want the answers, you'll find them all here.

" the bitter pleasure of draining the cup before you smash it to bits."