|Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld star in writer-director Christian Petzold's magnificent Phoenix.|
Simply by titling his new film Phoenix, German filmmaker Christian Petzold is clueing his audience in to the story he wants to tell. As with the tale of the mythical bird that is devoured by flames only to rise again from the ashes, this film promises a story of destruction and resurrection, death and rebirth. Since the audience knows the basic structure of what must happen, the intrigue must be found in the process by which these mutually exclusive states are achieved.
Petzold and co-writer Harun Farocki, working from a story by Hubert Monteilhet, prove adept at detailing the process of their heroine’s transformation, moving the plot along at a breakneck pace and not for one moment sacrificing depth or nuance. Phoenix tells of Nelly (Nina Hoss), a Holocaust survivor who wanders post-war Berlin searching for her husband. She has suffered such severe trauma that her face has had to be reconstructed by a plastic surgeon. She is herself but not quite.
Nelly is a stranger in this new world, sifting through the rubble of a broken country. Her journey, per the film’s title, is to build something else and recognize that what once was is gone and can never be again. To do so, she must cut ties with her past, starting with a husband whose motives only get murkier the more she learns.
There are many ways for this story to step wrong. Allegory such as this, when done badly, can come off as cheap and unearned. Nelly is a stand-in for all Holocaust survivors, and her wounds are the scars of a people nearly wiped out by genocide who must now find meaning in their survival. A lesser film would leave it at that, content to use the main character as a cipher through which the audience might come to understand a larger moral.
The strength of Phoenix is that it understands Nelly is both a symbol and an individual. As viewers, we are so drawn in by the nature of this one woman’s struggle that we cannot help but better comprehend the greater struggle. Where other filmmakers might fall into heavy-handedness and lose themselves in metaphor, Petzold and his collaborators tease out a stunning mystery while drawing a complex character portrait, incorporating the setting as a backdrop rather than a purpose unto itself.
Among those collaborators, none is more important than Hoss. The film lives and dies with her ability to convey a series of often-contradictory emotions in a single glance, and Hoss proves more than up to the task. Hoss is a master reactor, and she moves from optimism to devastation so quickly and so fully that the audience can do nothing but be swept along on her emotional roller coaster.
In particular, Nelly’s scenes with her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), play like a great high-wire act. Hoss and Zehrfeld are magnificent together, balancing the tension of a lifetime of shared history with the betrayals of the present while neither can speak directly of their pains and desires. Hoss makes Nelly totally malleable, willing to be whatever Johnny needs her to be, and Zehrfeld plays Johnny as a cold manipulator, molding Nelly into the form and function that suits him.
The tragic irony is that what they both need is Nelly to be herself. He cannot see who she is through the surgery, thinking her a stranger he can pass off as his wife – though as the story unfolds, it becomes a fair point to wonder if Johnny could ever really see the person she was. She cannot tell him who she is because the deeper he draws her into his web of deception, the less she is able to trust him.
Johnny believes Nelly died in the war. He is after her inheritance, so he enlists Nelly – again, thinking she is someone else – to pretend to be his deceased wife on the pretense that he will split the money with her if their fraud succeeds. She agrees to the charade because the war has left her without bearings. The facsimile of her marriage is the only way she can connect to her old life, so she willingly subjects herself to the indignity of helping her husband defraud her of her own money.
The film has been compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, to which there are certain plot similarities, and there is certainly a Hitchcockian vibe to the proceedings, but it runs deeper than that as Phoenix reminds of a number of classic thrillers. It is vintage, Golden Era Hollywood-style moviemaking, dripping with style and intensity, but informed by a modern sensibility.
Phoenix has the mechanics of an old-school mystery, but it is not overly concerned with solving that mystery. There are secrets and revelations, but Petzold is not interested in milking these for big “gotcha” moments. From the beginning, the movie already has us. Instead, Petzold explores how what we know and don’t know can destroy us but also provide the foundation for our rebirth.
See it? Yes.