German director Christian Petzold has long been fascinated by the way characters hide past indiscretions to avoid future punishments. It's what defines the conflict in his sharp neo-noir Jerichow and informs the social implications of the 1980s-set melodrama Barbara. Both of those films star Nina Hoss, whose dynamic presence lends the lifeblood to Petzold's rigorous formal style and somber pacing.
The two team up again with Phoenix, a striking and shifty mistaken-identity thriller that delves even deeper into Germany's traumatic past to address themes of comeuppance and revenge. World War II has just ended and American forces police both the desolate countryside and bombed-out urban areas. Jewish survivors of the concentration camps are returning home, sometimes having to face the same people who implicated them to the Nazis years before.
Singer Nelly Lens (Hoss) leaves Auschwitz with her face almost completely disfigured by a bullet wound, bloody bandages acting as temporary skin. Friend and protector Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf) drives her to a hospital for facial reconstruction, or "re-creation." Jazzy musical notes waft in the air as the two travel through the eerily quiet countryside under cover of night.
Upon arrival, Nelly confronts the reality of her situation; post-surgery she will emerge a stranger in appearance yet still harbor all of the pain and aguish of her past self. A great deal of this turmoil revolves around her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may or may not have cowered under the pressure of Nazi interrogation and turned in his own wife.
The question of Johnny's disloyalty drives Nelly to seek him out in rubble-strewn Berlin. While most Holocaust films grapple with the unfinished business of regret and anger, Phoenix takes a somewhat different stand. Nelly pursues the mysteries of her past because she wants to quell the doubt over her husband's potential guilt, and eventually recapture the essence of their previous relationship. But was it even good in the first place? The answer to this question is left purposefully ambiguous for most of the film.
When Nelly does find Johnny working at a sleazy cabaret bar filled with prostitutes and soldiers, he no longer recognizes her. She returns time and again hoping for a different result, until they eventually share a fateful conversation that complicates matters even more, sending Petzold's film into demented emotional territory à la Hitchcock's. Vertigo.
Phoenix brims with elaborate situational complexities that affect both its politics and characterizations. Watching Nelly try to reinvent herself while hiding her true self from Johnny is like watching a high-wire act with no net. Hoss' turn oscillates between multiple tones and facial expressions, as if she were trying to rediscover herself through performance. It's a strange attempt at forgiveness that has a perverse undercurrent, something Lene can't bear to watch unfold.
So the cycle of trauma begins again, affects those who thought they had escaped the worst horrors humanity has to offer. Who will shape the narrative this time around? Petzold plays with our expectations to avoid an easy answer. The fates of Nelly, Johnny and Lene are elementally connected to their pasts. Here, the film specifically addresses how individuals represent the flipsides of historical remembrance. It's entirely dependent on perspective and denial.
Phoenix, which opens Friday, Aug. 21 at the Reading Gaslamp, concludes with one of the most damning mic-drop endings of all time. Artistic expression doubles down as enraged political statement, and the bravery of Hoss' performance in this sequence (and the film in its entirety) matches Petzold's humanist resolve to ponder unavoidable questions. It is here, like Nelly herself, where the film reveals its true self, a warped portrait of determination and resilience standing up to the charming smile of false reconciliation and greed.
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