Reviewed by Jonathan Murray

Ronald Zehrfeld as Johnny and Nina Hoss as Nelly in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix

Ronald Zehrfeld as Johnny and Nina Hoss as Nelly in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix

Produced by Florian Koerner von Gustorf and Michael Weber; directed by Christian Petzold; screenplay by Christian Petzold and Harun Farocki, from Hubert Monteilhet’s novel Le Retour des cendres; cinematography by Hans Fromm; production design by Kade Gruber; original music by Stefan Will; edited by Bettina Böhler; costume design by Anette Guther; starring Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, and Nina Kunzendorf. Color, 98 min., German dialogue with English subtitles. A Sundance Selects release.

Christian Petzold’s Phoenix is a powerful reminder that we all face the world in more ways than one. Emphatically predicated on the power of the visage, Phoenix underscores the extent to which the human countenance simultaneously grants a sense of personal identity-cum-integrity and the means to communicate this publicly: our individual features are a present that allows us to present ourselves to other people. At the same time, Petzold’s movie is also a meditation on the power of mirage, the dangerous chimeras and consequences conjured up by human refusal (or inability) to face up to things as they really are: the true nature of the times and places in which we each find ourselves living, and the individual parts we play in shaping those settings for our lives.

But this still isn’t quite the full story: alongside visage and mirage, we should also acknowledge homage as the final entry in Phoenix’s interlocking triumvirate of thematic preoccupations. Liberally adapted from Hubert Monteilhet’s 1961 novel Le Retour des cendres, Petzold’s film weaves a complex tapestry of cinematic reference points into and around its central source material. In swaddling its protagonist’s face in surgical bandages for a significant part of proceedings, Phoenix nods knowingly toward plot precedents set by Georges Franju’s Les Yeux sans visage (1960) and Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage (1947). In exploring a different form of cosmetic surgery altogether, namely, post-World War II Germany’s anguished oscillation between collective acknowledgment and avoidance of the Holocaust and its aftermath, Petzold also picks up on (and from) earlier German cinematic attempts to confront an awful period in the nation’s history, Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers Are Among Us (1946) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) prominent among them. The result is a movie that asks, as emotively as it does intelligently, some profoundly searching historical, moral, and philosophical questions of its viewer.

Having been shot in the face by Nazis, Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) is a severely disfigured Jewish concentration camp survivor brought back to postwar Berlin by her long-term friend Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf), an investigative lawyer dedicated to the task of finding and supporting camp victims and any surviving relatives. Nelly’s escape from death is doubly miraculous, given that she had seemed to actively court extinction some years before, returning to Berlin from the safe haven of London in 1938, in order to be with her beloved husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). A professional singer by trade, Nelly wants nothing more than to resume her life as it was before Nazism, although Lene has made arrangements for the two women to emigrate to Palestine as quickly as possible.

Nina Kunzendorf (Lene) and Nina Hoss (Nelly)

Nina Kunzendorf (Lene) and Nina Hoss (Nelly)

After receiving plastic surgery that successfully treats her facial (if not psychological) trauma, Nelly obsessively scours the dangerous, dilapidated streets of Berlin for her husband. Lene protests vehemently and in vain, trying to convince Nelly that Johnny betrayed her to the Nazis. When Nelly finds Johnny working in a reopened cabaret bar (the—or at least one of the—phoenixes referred to in the film’s title), he does not recognize his wife, whom he is convinced has died in the camps. But he cannot fail to notice his “new” acquaintance’s resemblance to his presumably deceased spouse, and asks her to pose (after an extended period of coaching) as Nelly in order that he might claim her substantial family inheritance for himself. Nelly plays along, telling Johnny that she is a concentration-camp survivor called Esther, but clearly hoping that the scales will eventually fall from her errant husband’s eyes. An emotionally excoriating climax comes when Johnny finally puts his long-planned scheme into action.

The high-wire precision of Phoenix’s plotting—deliberately flirting as it does with a plunge into outright implausibility—works to underscore Petzold’s public pronouncements that his movie aims to cast a skeptical (yet also sympathetic) eye over the bewilderingly complex ethics and politics of postwar German reconstruction. A markedly melodramatic story about the rebuilding of an individual face allows for a simultaneous, and highly modulated, examination of the rebuilding of an entire place. Thus, while Nelly’s situation and psyche are remarkable, as is Nina Hoss’s bravura rendition of them, Phoenix resists the temptation to abase itself in adoration at the feet of such things. Each of the film’s central characters is given space to embody radically different responses to the historical project of reconstruction, and it is notable that each approach comes with its own particular form of injury and impossibility in tow.

Reconstruction as competing forms of rejection (Lene), reanimation (Nelly), and revision (Johnny) are variously explored and found wanting in different ways as Phoenix’s narrative unfolds. Lene’s utterly understandable recoiling from her native cultural heritage (“I can’t stand German songs anymore,” she confesses to Nelly at one point) stems from the fact that the forensic legal investigations she conducts allow her a far more detailed knowledge of the Holocaust’s mechanics and amorality than any other character in Phoenix is able or willing to achieve. Yet, the resultant anger that helps her to save others also renders her incapable of rescuing herself. Elsewhere, Johnny’s arguably unlikely failure to recognize Nelly becomes psychologically plausible because it is symptomatic of an all-too-believable form of collective amnesia. How, when, and why to remember WWII from the vantage point of those who lived under a defeated dictatorship becomes “a question of morality,” in Petzold’s words.

Ultimately, whether or not Johnny knows Nelly’s true identity becomes something of a moot point by the time that he plans to forcibly remove the camp prisoner number from her arm. The ideological symbolism of this readiness to erase evidence of past state-sponsored violence in the name of present-day financial prosperity comfortably outstrips the competing claims of tantalizing plot-based ambiguities…

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