A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed ‘Ex Machina’, an exceedingly intelligent motion picture about artificial intelligence which examined female identity, and the construction of female identity in a male-dominant society. I raved and called it one of the best films of the year. Christian Petzold’s ‘Phoenix’ occupies an entirely different genre. But, there are overlapping themes, and this is also one of the best films of 2015.
‘Phoenix’ stars Petzold’s longtime collaborator Nina Hoss (they worked together on the superb war drama ‘Barbara’, ‘Yella’, and ‘Jerichow’). Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) escapes from a concentration camp but suffers a facial injury caused by a bullet wound. She undergoes significant plastic surgery in an effort to rebuild her face resulting in a version of herself that doesn’t match the one that existed prior to the war. Presumed dead by her friends and relatives, Nelly returns to post-war Berlin to search for her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). But as she scours the shattered city to find him, she is presented with some convincing evidence which suggests that it was Johnny himself who betrayed her to the Nazis: he was released two days after his arrest, which was the same day Nelly was arrested.
On paper, some of this may sound preposterous and I apologize if my plot description above doesn’t do the film justice. There will be some viewers who question the credibility of the events that transpire in the picture. And if so, they have missed the point entirely. This is a film about denial. Johnny (who has rebranded himself Johannes), a former pianist now working as a busboy in a nightclub called Phoenix, doesn’t recognize Nelly when he sees her and assumes that she just bears a passing resemblance to his wife; he refuses to accept she could be his wife, instead choosing to believe that his wife is dead. Johannes ropes Nelly into a scheme to pretend to be who she actually is in order to inherit an unclaimed fortune (from Nelly having lost her entire family to the camps). He trains her to be his late wife: dressing her in the clothes she used to wear, working on her walk, her movements, her mannerisms, her handwriting, everything. She acquiesces, fearful of divulging the truth, and trusting this gives her a glimpse into the life she once occupied. But, she too is in denial, refusing to believe that her husband gave her up for his freedom.
‘Phoenix’ is Petzold’s masterpiece, mining the premise for its psychological and emotional potential. This expertly plotted picture is a scintillating examination of how people deal with affliction. Or refuse to deal with affliction. Most movies plug characters in to further advance the plot. Petzold uses the narrative to make piercing statements about the mystification of humanity. Hoss was the strong center of ‘Barbara’, and she does a complete reversal here projecting that aura of fear – the fear of losing her face, her identity, her husband, and her life. The memory of her husband kept her alive in Auschwitz, but she now believes he might be the reason she was sent there in the first place. How does she move on from here? This may be Nelly’s story but it is representative of the postwar alienation faced by any survivor and the realization that the only way to make sense of the past is to face it sincerely.
Johnny and Nelly’s relationship is so absorbing because of their shared denial – his refusal to accept the woman in front of him is the wife he betrayed and her refusal to accept that what is in front of her is counterfeit currency or a representation of a past that she is never going to be able to go back to.
‘Phoenix’ called to mind Alfred Hitchock’s ‘Vertigo’; Johnny and Nelly aren’t all that different from Scottie and Judy – recall the painstaking lengths Scottie went through to shape the woman he encounters into the woman of his desires. The picture has the look and feel of a classic noir and while the influences of these master filmmakers are evident, Petzold is after something else – choosing to confront the unspeakable acts of history.
Hess is in every single scene of ‘Phoenix’ and she is spellbinding. It’s as good a performance as I’ve seen all year. Observe the way her character deliberately unravels as Johnny transfigures her; early in the film, she is hunched and often seen in the dark settings, but as the dread of her plight becomes clear, she becomes increasingly self-reliant rising to the heights suggested by the film’s title. The methodically orchestrated climax, which I will not reveal to you, has the power to break the hearts of even the most hardened of viewers. ‘Phoenix’ is what we talk about when talk about greatness in cinema. Seek out this breathtaking movie at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For some inexplicable reason, ‘Phoenix’ doesn’t have a US release date. QED.