Drawing connections between film-festival movies can be an intellectual parlor game, something to amuse your friends or keep your mind from turning to goo: After viewing Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner” and Jessica Hausner’s “Amour Fou” on successive days, I joked that one of the emerging themes of this year’s Toronto Film Festival was pianofortes. But on some occasions, festivals — or, more specifically, the path that you carve through the untracked wilderness of the screening schedule — throw together movies that, though made at different times and by different people, nonetheless seem to be speaking to each other, creating a conversation that you’re privileged to drop in on.
“Phoenix” and “The Look of Silence” were made thousands of miles apart and decades after the events at their center. Christian Petzold’s drama is set in Berlin at the end of World War II, where Nina Hoss’ disfigured Jew comes back to a husband who doesn’t recognize and may have betrayed her; Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary asks Indonesian killers and victims to reflect on the state-sponsored mass killings of 1965. In Petzold’s movie, Hoss’s husband (Ronald Zehrfeld) slowly shapes her into a facsimile of the wife he believes is dead in an attempt to claim her inheritance; in Oppenheimer’s, Adi, the younger brother of a man murdered by the death squads, confronts the men who carried out and oversaw the murder of somewhere between half a million and three million people. (There has never been a serious, statewide effort to reckon with the bloodshed, and the killers were ruthless about not leaving witnesses.) In “Phoenix,” the wounds of war are too raw to be probed; in “The Look of Silence” they have scabbed over but not healed, and Oppenheimer and Adi are warned with barely veiled menace not to open them again.
“The Look of Silence’s” Adi is a traveling optometrist, and he uses the process of checking his subjects’ eyesight as a means of entry; even an unrepentant killer gets a new pair of glasses. But there’s a deeper, more willful blindness that a fresh set of lenses cannot fix, the kind that allows the killers to stare the reality of what they did right in the face and still not see it. Attempting to defuse a tense conversation with Adi, one of the death-squad officials makes a request that would be stricken from a Chris Morris mock-doc as impossibly unrealistic: “Can’t we just get along, like the military dictatorship taught us?” Oppenheimer’s previous documentary, “The Act of Killing,” allowed the killers to construct their own versions of events, restaging their monstrous acts with no apparent pangs of conscience, even as they mimicked their victims’ dying cries. “The Look of Silence,” which returns again and again to the image of Adi watching a videotape where two men describe his brother’s murder in gory, unrepentant detail, is about seeing the truth, and those who never will.
When I first saw it, “Phoenix” struck me as a powerful and resonant film, if not one quite up to the level of Petzold and Hoss’ “Barbara.” But there was an aspect of the movie that lingered in my mind unresolved until I saw “The Look of Silence” several days later. That Hoss’ character emerges from surgery for a bullet-riddled nose and cheek without lifelong scars is unlikely; that she ends up looking like Nina Hoss, miraculous; that her husband can spend months in her company recognize her voice, her smell, her way of walking, even her handwriting borders on preposterous. I had no trouble suspending my disbelief — it’s a movie, after all, and one with obvious ties to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” one of cinema’s great studies in self-delusion — but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why Petzold would leave such an obvious objection nearly unaddressed.
It wasn’t until “Phoenix” met up with “The Look of Silence” in my head that I realized that the husband’s failure to recognize his wife is a feature, not a bug. It’s not that Hoss has crafted some flawless disguise, or that she goes to exceptionally clever lengths to alter her identifying characteristics; the point is that her husband has every reason to see her, and he chooses not to. He can’t confront whatever role he may have played in her capture, or in what he assumes is her death in a concentration camp, or the ugly fact of his own survival; he can’t admit that he was a part, however small, in the Nazis rise to power, and the carrying-out of their monstrous plans. He’s the embodiment of the “good Germans” who turned a blind eye as their country turned towards evil, who would later claim they had no idea what was happening around them, and then that they had no choice. It’s blindness as a survival mechanism, and then as a way of life.