Learn about German director Christian Pentzold and an example of how his work is being compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s.
Written by: Jenna Moloney
Alfred Hitchcock is arguably the greatest director of all time, and his films have such a distinct technique about them. Nicknamed the “Master of Suspense,” Hitchcock really created psychological suspense in his films (Biography.com editors). His works are known today as psychological thrillers, as they thrill their audiences and make them anxious. Some of the cinematic technical elements he used include uncomfortably close close-up shots, unusual eye-popping colors and series of unrealistic events, low lighting, and sinister music. These elements created a dark undertone to each movie holistically, and often foreshadowed events that had not occurred yet or reflected events that had. Although he passed away in 1980, members of the film industry and students in the area of film studies analyze Hitchcock’s works even today. Christian Pentzold, a director from Germany, is believed to be one of these people. His new film entitled “Phoenix,” released in 2014, has been gaining attention for its interesting plot and cliffhanger ending. If you examine this film closely, it is not hard to realize that it contains a lot of cinematic techniques similar to Hitchcock’s typical style. The overall messages of “Phoenix” and Hitchcock’s 1958 film “Vertigo” are also undeniably similar.
As mentioned above, some of the cinematic elements Hitchcock likes to use include close-up shots, eye-popping colors and series of unrealistic events, low lighting, and sinister music. These are all included in his film “Vertigo,” the tale of a man, depressed over the death of his lover, trying to make a new woman look exactly like her. It’s also the tale of a man’s twisted plan to murder his wife. These stories are intertwined in the perfect way to make this film a psychological thriller and, unknowingly to the audience, a murder mystery. It begins with the credits, showing behind the names a close-up shot of a woman’s face, so close that it only shows part of her cheek. Already, the viewers feel uneasy and frightened at what is to come because “the closer the shot, the more intense the emotion” (Giannetti, 11). The camera moves down to her lips, up to her nose, then to her eyes, and finally lands on one eye. The eye is looking in both directions as if it is scared of something in the same room. People with vertigo often look around and are frightened by what they are seeing: shaking or moving objects that should be still. The bluish-gray and low lighting filter adds to the ominous feel, as filters “intensify given qualities” (Giannetti, 29). The sinister music makes the audience feel even more anxious. The color of the whole screen then turns red, indicating danger; the color red often evokes feelings of stress. The scene then continues in a series of unusual, eye-popping colors in the form of moving, unfamiliar shapes- indicating that this scene could never occur in reality. This continues to distress our subconscious, and is an example of formalism. “Formalists… are often concerned with spiritual and psychological truths, which they feel can be conveyed best by distorting the surface of the material world.” (Giannetti, 2). Basically, this series of moving shapes serves the sole purpose of creating fear and stress before the plot starts. Just in this opening scene, which unfolds in less than two minutes, Hitchcock has already accomplished something big: he’s made his audience full of fear, full of questions, and full of emotion before the story even begins.
Although Pentzold doesn’t use all of these techniques in the very opening scene of Phoenix, the same technical elements can be found scattered throughout the film. Eye-popping colors are used, although not in the unrealistic way shown in “Vertigo,” through the filters of certain scenes. For example, the club, called “The Phoenix,” is much more colorful than the scene where Nelly walks through her old house that has been reduced to rubble. The lighting of The Phoenix is actually not as bright as this somber scene, but the color certainly catches the eyes of viewers. The club’s overall effect is the work of a red filter, whereas the sadness of the house’s ruins is created by silence and consistent neutral colors. A series of unrealistic events occurs in this film as well when there are two people who both appear to be Nelly walking around trying to find pictures. The scene did not appear to be a time lapse, but rather two of the same being in the same room. There is another scene, appearing as a dream just like in “Vertigo,” (occurring before Nelly meets her husband again) where she is with her husband by the piano. As she emerges from the light her face appears to be distorted or bruised. This is unrealistic because they met again after her face had been fixed.
In “Vertigo,” an example of formalism occurs as Scottie’s dream after “Madeline” dies. After a series of bright colors and weird, moving shapes, Scottie watches himself falling off the Church tower, falling into the same grave he saw Madeline studying, and involved in other frightening scenes. This scene shows how his lover’s death has affected him psychologically; he is frightened, guilty, and heartbroken. Similarly, Nelly’s dream from “Phoenix” shows how the concentration camps affected her psychologically. At first the dream seems peaceful, showing that Nelly is still in love with her husband and cannot wait to reunite with him. However, as her face is shown beaten up, the audience quickly realizes that she is clearly just as afraid of her past as she is her future.
In addition to similar cinematic approaches in both movies, the overall thematic ideas of the films appear to be extremely similar as well. In “Vertigo,” Judy is taking on a new identity and becoming Madeline. Then, her false identity dies, and she hides her true self for a while. When she runs into Scottie again, she tries to hide her past identity while Scottie does everything he can to bring that false identity back. This struggle of one person and two identities parallels the struggle of Nelly in “Phoenix”. As Scottie wanted to make Judy into someone she wasn’t, Nelly’s husband Johnny, not knowing it was truly Nelly, tried to make her into a replica of Nelly. However, his approach made her feel like somebody completely different- somebody far from Nelly. For example, nobody could ever leave a concentration camp looking magazine-ready, but Johnny makes her perform this act for her “friends.” Just as Scottie dressed Judy up as Madeline, Johnny makes Nelly dress up in old Nelly’s clothes, makeup, and hair. Both Nelly and Madeline hide their identities from their supposed lovers, and both are exposed for their true selves in the end. The major difference in the two films occurs in the ending scene; while Nelly leaves Johnny for a life full of opportunity and sunshine, Madeline falls to her death. Like the legend of the phoenix, Nelly is “reborn” into a world now full of hope, but Madeline terminates all future opportunities in darkness.
I believe the overall conclusion we can draw from studying film techniques is that every detail, no matter how minute, is carefully thought-out and used in the film for a reason. Each color is trying to foreshadow something; each shot is trying to reflect upon something. Each seemingly pointless scene explains what’s happening in a character’s mind, and lighting creates the mood- even if you don’t consciously notice it. A tremendous amount of work goes into the making of each and every film, and most end results are truly amazing and entertaining.
Biography.com Editors. “Alfred Hitchcock.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television,
13 Aug. 2015. Web. 09 Feb. 2017.
Giannetti, Louis D. Understanding Movies. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972.