Survival tales set during the Second World War and around the Nazi era, have been the social environment of many a film. The horrors of the Holocaust and the madness of an ideology shattered an entire nation’s culture, and damaged it to the point of necessary re-creation. As far as movies go, it’s a milieu that will never get old, but one that can feel stale with a certain, typical, style of direction. On the other hand, when you have a filmmaker with a deep understanding of what makes films breathe and an uncanny capability for absolute control, a familiar canvass can be an advantage. This is precisely what it is for German auteur Christian Petzold and his extravagant, eloquent and deeply effective film “Phoenix.”
The story is set in post-war Berlin, ravaged by war and still very much lurking in the shadows of distorted principles, where Jewish Agency employee Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) is returning her close friend Nelly (Petzold regular Nina Hoss) back to her hometown. Nelly is an Auschwitz survivor, who has gone through severe torture, leaving her face bandaged and in need of surgical reconstruction. In explaining the difficulties of making her look exactly like she did before the war, her surgeon tells her to think of the positive; “a new face is an advantage.” Nelly is still shell-shocked and vehemently opposed to the idea of having an unrecognizable face, but Lene provides moral support and, as a Jewish woman who can’t even listen to German songs anymore, believes this new physical beginning is a good thing. Especially because Nelly’s husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) will not be able to recognize her and use her for the money she inherited from her dead family members. According to Lene, it was Johnny who betrayed Nelly to the Nazis. Nelly, still desperately in love with her husband and clinging to her past self with every fiber of her body, refuses to believe this.
Nelly has her surgery, and moves in to an apartment with Lene. Against her friend’s advice, the scarred survivor sets out to search for Johnny and find out for herself whether his betrayal can possibly harbor any truth to it. Scouring the dark nights in even darker alleyways, Nina happens upon the nightclub “Phoenix,” where she is told she could possibly find Johnny, who may or may not have continued his work as a piano player after the war. She finds him bussing tables, not playing the piano, and going by his formal name Johannes. In a serendipitous moment of encounter, she calls out his name, he turns, sees no one he recognizes, and her sense of self is shattered all over again. But then, she comes back, and he notices her again, this time realizing that she bears an uncanny resemblance to his dead wife. He explains this to her, and concocts a plan that will see him get his dead wife’s inheritance: post-war Nelly will impersonate pre-war Nelly, and claim her inheritance which they will in turn split between themselves.
What follows is one woman’s despairing attempt at gluing the broken pieces of her life back together, by pretending to pretend to be herself in front of her husband, who is certain that the real Nelly has died. As far as exploring human identity goes, Petzold’s concept (which comes from an original screenplay, written by himself) is nothing short of genius. Digging further into this complex framework of highly charged emotion and inhibition is the dubious personality of Johnny. Did he ever love Nelly? Did he really betray her to the Nazis? Does he, in fact, recognize the post-war Nelly but refuses to admit it? And if so, does he refuse because of guilt or because of greed? This is Petzold’s method of building suspense, and as we continue to experience the film more and more through Nelly’s perspective, these questions immerse us deeper into the story and truly make the entire picture pulsate and drip with a kind of dread. Setting the story in post-war Berlin is yet another approach that works wonders in “Phoenix.” Countless films have explored Holocaust survivors either many years after the war or right in the middle of it, but it’s a rare thing to follow a survivor in the immediate aftermath and in the very city that spread the poison of the war. In this way, Petzold distills a familiar atmosphere to create a work veiled in vibrant, cohesive, sensitively stimulating power.
This power is accentuated, and made all the more potent, with the lush, balanced cinematography by Hans Fromm, and a riveting, spectacularly subtle performance from Hoss. The noir-ish characteristics of the entire film’s composition are exemplified in a single scene featuring Hoss and Kunzendorf, when Nelly explains her reasons for seeking out Johnny. She wakes Lene up in the middle of the night, instructs her not to switch the light on, and talks with her face covered in darkness; her hair a glowing, almost angelic, boundary. It brilliantly conveys the character’s existential dilemma by using darkness and light, and the purpose behind Nelly’s request to keep the light off is characteristic of the kind of purpose felt behind most of the film’s shots, whether they are in idyllic nature or around the dilapidated ruins of Berlin. Hoss’ performance, like her five previous ones for Petzold, will garner well-deserved attention from various European awards bodies because it is pure, sensitive, and sublime. She has this way about her, which allows all the range of emotions Nelly feels during her time with Johnny to be ignited and to keep pulling the viewer in. And then, there’s that virtuoso final scene.
Endings are arguably the most important part of any story; if all the build-up amounts to a disappointing finale, the entire experience is shattered. In “Phoenix,” Petzold builds to an ending that will, quite literally, take your breath away. Equal praise must be handed out to Zehrfeld for making it work, but it’s Hoss who walks away with our hearts. With the character of Lene, Petzold symbolizes the Jewish reaction and consequence from the Second World War; an aspect far too vital to ignore in a film set around the Nazi era. The film, however, truly comes to life with Nelly, as much a portrait of a woman longing to find herself again as a portrait of an entire nation longing for a way to re-build. [A-]