The big-tent (or big-marketplace) approach of the Toronto film festival can make comparing notes with fellow attendees a rewarding experience, especially as the days run on and people check the purported must-sees off their lists. That somehow felt less true of the 2014 edition, but my mixed experience might have been because I had attended Cannes in the spring, and wasn’t starting the festival off with, say, a Stranger by the Lake, but rather a Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (more on this later). And it’s easy to distrust the conventional wisdom when it steers you away from Christian Petzold’s latest film, Phoenix, not a hands-down masterpiece but by no means a film to dismiss.

Phoenix Nina Hoss


Perhaps it was the Berlin Schooler’s embrace of melodramatic and noir conceits that turned some people off (many apparently before even seeing it), but Petzold’s borrowings from postwar genre films are key to his latest feature. Phoenix follows a scarred concentration camp survivor as she returns and finds herself inexorably drawn into looking for her husband who thinks her dead. Petzold fixture Nina Hoss plays Nelly, the fragile survivor, while her shifty spouse is called Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), and the two not-very-German-sounding names suggest an old bar ballad. But when Johnny does not recognize her and makes an unusual job offer, the scenario is closer to a mistaken-identity picture (No Man of Her Own?).

While some viewers grumbled about suspension of disbelief, I found the story an uncanny and pointed expression of postwar alienation for survivors, especially those pressed to cope with the past by forgetting it. Nelly faces a double re-assimilation in peacetime Berlin, as a Jew and as a wounded survivor, and around Johnny, she is quite literally asked to impersonate herself, which would make for a permanent state of fractured identity. Petzold’s ruined, mercenary city is a land of rubble and long, deep shadows, and at least one thriving cabaret club, which shares its name with the film; Nelly’s sister meanwhile tries to steer her away from self-destruction, to the point of suggesting a move to an apartment in Haifa, Israel. The deceptively gimmicky plot was written by Petzold and his close collaborator Harun Farocki, who died a little over a month before the film’s world premiere here.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting Existence

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

While you might not guess as much from the parodically long title, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence also has its mind on man’s inhumanity to man and the fact that there’s no escaping the past. Other than being shot on digital (and not for the better), Roy Andersson’s first new feature in seven years does not exactly stake out new ground: its long-take, wide-screen tableaus are populated with his usual dumpy, woebegone figures of fun, most of them made up to look as pale as corpses and walking as elegantly as zombies. The episodes are like elaborations on single-panel newspaper comics: a dying hospital patient clutches her handbag to the frustration of her adult children; a king and his entourage inexplicably appear at a modern-day bar, where his highness takes a shining to a young man.

Andersson’s deadpan humor has always cut both ways in his pictures of habit-ridden humans: bovine, potentially harmless, but capable of causing great suffering. Here he restages the devastating truck-gassing scene of his 1991 short World of Glory with a thoroughly off-putting scene of murder for show: British colonial soldiers lead Africans into a giant cask-like contraption that cooks them and channels their moans through trumpets. But in the day-to-day scenes, “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine” becomes the film’s hopeless refrain, heard whenever someone takes a phone call (even when it’s scientist stepping away from a monkey awaiting open-skull experimentation). Andersson remains fascinated by the violence of history lurking beneath the present, whether explicitly or not, and by the politeness that’s spread like a whitewash over civilization. But his punch-line tendencies have a way of making these ideas feel sentimental; the accumulation of orchestrated scenes dilute his film’s impact this time round. As for his two interminably recurring characters here—a pair of sad-sack traveling salesmen who purvey goofy novelty masks that no one wants—I prefer Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald’s “Nobody likes us” duo from The Kids in the Hall

While We're Young

While We're Young

Shinya Tsukamoto’s Fires on the Plain splashed fresh gore on the classic Kon Ichikawa adaptation of the Shohei Ooka novel, bringing ample frenetic camerawork and (quite literally) visceral portrayals of the Hell on Earth that was a Philippine island in the waning days of World War II, stalked by abandoned Japanese soldiers going mad. The Tetsuo veteran retains the original’s crowd-pleasing line, “You can eat me!” uttered by a dying soldier to a survivor, which succinctly expresses the gross-out level of the film’s climactic battle scene. But lest Toronto ’14 sound entirely grim and grisly, a little relief came with Noah Baumbach’s entertaining if not profound While We’re Young, which lacked the usual bite present in most of his films. Failed documentarian turned teacher Ben Stiller and his producer wife Naomi Watts are shaken up (and shown up) by an unexpected friendship with cool Williamsburg careerist Adam Driver and his companion Amanda Seyfried. The premise is broad and musty, somewhere between an extended arc on Girls and either a reheated Sixties counterculture comedy or an Eighties hand-wringer for boomers. But Baumbach’s riffs on ambition and creativity and his ambivalence about the younger generation (cf. Greenberg) are diverting.

Among the nonfiction work at Toronto, Episode of the Sea employs Dutch fishermen to tell the story of their industry’s survival, straight to the camera, arrayed on boats or in houses. Shot in bracing black-and-white and interspersed with lengthy text scrolls explaining the project, it’s almost like a riposte to the total immersion of Leviathan, taking some inspiration and its title from La Terra Trema (which was originally subtitled “Episode of the Sea” and planned as part of a trilogy). You might also call The Yes-Men Are Revolting self-narrated, as it’s driven by the notorious culture-jammers of the title, as they face divergent paths later in life. But this is an alarmingly weak installment in their continuing adventures, the kind of documentary that feels slapped together to follow a simplistic overarching narrative at the expense of clarity about its complicated subject matter—unwisely, since the Yes-Men’s actions attune us to the shortfalls and shortcuts of media representation.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

My festival visit ended with a definitive high point—or low point—with Tales of the Grim Sleeper. These days Nick Broomfield seems to elicit knowing winces (which is certainly easier to produce than an actual reckoning with his techniques), yet there’s no denying the strength and the horror of his latest work, which delves into a jaw-dropping run of serial murders in South Central Los Angeles. Co-starring his extraordinary, outspoken guide, Pam Brooks, who spent years as a prostitute and addict, the film develops from tabloid investigation into an unexpectedly poignant portrait of life as lived in a routinely harsh yet neighborly stretch of black America and of the cataclysmic effects of racism and violence (from within and without a community). It’s apparently not destined for theaters, but its disturbing truths deserve to be part of the larger cultural conversation.