War can change a person to where they become unrecognizable to their loved ones and to themselves. It can ravage people and places. It can disfigure a person’s body and soul.
Writer-director Christian Petzold takes this idea literally in his masterful new neo-noir, Phoenix, where his long-time muse, Nina Hoss, delivers a performance for the ages as Nelly, a concentration camp survivor who undergoes facial reconstruction surgery and then finds herself in the psychologically complex predicament of having to go under disguise as another woman pretending to be herself so as to find out the truth about her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may or may not have been the one who betrayed her to the Nazis during the war.
Despite the warnings of her friend and confidant, Lene (a bleak and soulful Nina Kuzendorf) who hopes for Nelly to rest and recover while she works out the legality of claiming Nelly’s family inheritance so that they can join the flux of survivors to Palestine, Nelly wanders the ravaged Berlin landscape mourning bombed out homes, hiding under a widow’s mask and traipsing through the shadows like a Frankenstein monster until she comes across the down-and-out Phoenix nightclub where American soldiers mix with the German underbelly looking to ply them with sex and show tunes. Nelly, a former torch signer, and Johnny, a former pianist, find themselves in this hellish version of their former lives, both on the outskirts looking in, not able to perform. He sees her as someone who looks vaguely like his dead wife, who he now wishes to resurrect so he can collect the inheritance (which he promises to split with her if she plays along). She sees him as a shell of the man she once fell in love with and who she desperately wishes she could fall in love with again. Thus a grand charade begins, and they are soon caught up in perverse duplicity where emotions and guilt run high.
Petzold films scenes in perfect frames and shadows, evoking a chamber-piece version of The Third Man, without it ever seeming overly stylish. Meanwhile Hoss’ physical stiffness is in stark contrast to her otherwise subtle performance where she speaks volumes with her eyes and facial expressions – expertly showing the audience the dichotomy of her predicament where she must hide herself from everyone while inside her inner turmoil runneth over (leaving Nelly to literally lurch). It’s such a controlled performance (inside such a controlled, economic film where not a single shot or line of dialogue is wasted) that when Nelly’s full transformation occurs at the film’s end, it a pure moment of cinematic awe where the audience is left gasping.
SPOILER ALERTS – DO NOT READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM – It is highly recommended you see the film on as clean a slate as possible, then come back and read the following paragraphs to join the conversation.
The film has been adapted from an obscure French suspense novel (Le Retours des Cendres by Hubert Montelheit) but by all measures Petzold has made it his own. The brilliant thing about Phoenix is that you can take it all at face value and be riveted, or, if you so choose, you can dive deeper and conjure even more twisted explanations to shape and color Nelly’s psychological calamity. Is the whole story just an allegory (or metaphor) for the post-war Jewish psyche in Germany? Or at one point, it’s hard not to wonder if there is some kind of Persona/Mulholland Drive type deal going on with Nelly/Lene. It’s never fully explained how the two knew each other or how Nelly got from the camp to the hospital in the state she was in (the doctor mentions her facial disfigurement is from a gunshot wound…was it self-inflicted?). When Lene later takes her own life with a revolver after being overcome with survivor’s guilt (and leaving behind a letter stating she felt more at home with the dead than the living), did she ever really exist at all or was she the part of Nelly’s conscience that had to die before she could complete her transformation into a true survivor?
And one can’t talk about Phoenix being a masterpiece without talking about that transformation and the ending. The film’s slow build culminates with Johnny staging Nelly’s return (who he is still treating as a woman pretending to be Nelly) by having her arrive by train and run into him with their old group of friends (some of whom who were identified by Lene as Nazis) who are shocked (and more stiff than truly excited) to find she has survived. Awkwardly they wine and dine and lounge at a plush estate pining for the good old days. Nelly then asks Johnny to sit at the piano while she treats their old friends to a tune in one of the single greatest moments of an actress singing ever to grace the silver screen.
Nina Hoss’s rendition of “Speak Low” starts just like her character Nelly, low and lurching, struggling to find its footing and way, but slowly she gains her confidence and by the end Johnny has forgone the piano (and come to the realization that this is the real Nelly through her voice and by seeing the number tattooed on her arm at Auschwitz when the sleeve of her red dress rides up), and she’s belting it out without accompaniment (to haunting and heartbreaking effect), her voice soaring and her head moving to look up and away until she stops, grabs her coat and purse, and coolly walks out of there…leaving behind an audience, both in the film and in the theater seats, with shocked looks on their faces. Hoss and Nelly have taken our breaths away even though we knew all along (and maybe even in some ways Johnny did too) that this was Nelly. In this act she has successfully transferred the survivor’s guilt where it belongs – to those who betrayed their Jewish friends, neighbors and loved ones and sat idly by while they were hauled away and slaughtered. The audience’s desire for blood lust (like Lene, I had wished at one point she would just shoot Johnny) has been transferred to witnessing one of the classiest “f*** you’s” in cinematic history, right up there with Alida Vali’s walk-on-by of Joseph Cotton at the end of The Third Man or the arrest on the steps at the end of Hitchcock’s Notorious.
Yes, Phoenix is THAT good to be mentioned in the same breath as those noir classics. The best films utilize well-worn genre tropes as vehicles for deeper understanding into the human condition. They require some suspension of disbelief (here we are meant to believe a husband would not recognize his wife) and use the suspension (is it because of guilt?) as a space for metaphors for something grander. They entertain as much as they provoke thought. Phoenix successfully does all of this, all while operating as a master class in subtle direction and acting.
The only crime you could commit and guilt you should feel is if you don’t run out to see it on the big screen as soon as possible (if you are one of the lucky people to live in a select city where it’s showing). Meanwhile, I’ll be as shocked as Johnny and Nelly’s bastard friends if something else comes along in 2015 to best it.
Written by David H. Schleicher
For those who have seen the film, CLICK HERE for a great interview with Petzold that reveals a bit about artist’s intent and his collaborative relationship with Hoss.