Nothing is what it seems in Petzold’s Phoenix.
A tale all about duplicity and deception, we follow the story of a concentration camp survivor Nelly (Nina Hoss) who after undergoing facial reconstruction attempts to find her long lost husband (Ronald Zehrfeld) in post-war Berlin.
There is a mystery that shrouds this apparent film noir, however we learn that the film subverts even the tiniest of plot threads in the most dramatic fashion. For a long time little is explained about the film’s central character, as we are simply left to observe Nelly make her recovery, never seeing the true extent of the damage. With her only wish to look as she once did in order to remain recognizable to her musician husband, for a significant portion of the earlier film she prowls around endlessly, her face remaining bandaged, as the audience are left to anticipate whether there will be any likeness to her former self as a successful Jewish singer.
Cinematography serves the film well, capitalizing on the grey post-war aesthetic. Buildings are reduced to rubble as characters seek any form of light relief. This comes in the form of musical entertainment at the local bars and nightclubs, one of which is named Phoenix and gives the film its title. It is at this very bar that Nelly re-encounters her musician husband Johannes (nicknamed ‘Johnny’) again for the first time. Now working as a waiter, rather heartbreakingly he fails to recognize her, only observing a slight resemblance to his former wife. This encounter, as we come to understand, births the film’s rather unusual premise. Enchanted by Johnny’s attentions, Nelly puts her heart on the line in order to reconnect with Johannes no matter the cost as she remains armed with the belief that the thoughts of reuniting with her husband saved her life during her imprisonment. As a result, Nelly unashamedly embroils herself in a foolhardy plan to claim his former wife’s (and therefore her own) inheritance. However the twist, unbeknownst to Johnny, is that she is his wife.
Johnny provides Nelly with room and board as they initially form a vey tentative relationship, neither is sure of the other’s intentions. For Nelly, her desire is to know if Johnny still loves her. But it is clear that Johnny has darker objectives in mind. From this point on the film charts the evolution of Johannes’ plans as we watch the pair meticulously plan his wife’s (and therefore her own) homecoming; as Johnny meticulously choreographs her re-arrival, providing her with a backstory, molding her external character considerably. This includes making her dye her hair and wear certain clothes (which are actually her own), as Johnny becomes master puppeteer.
Later on it is revealed by caseworker Lene, who throughout has urged Nelly to leave German and travel to Palestine after her bandages come off in order to start anew, that Johnny betrayed Nelly, revealing her to be a Jew causing her imprisonment and resulting disfigurement. This does little to perturb Nelly’s affections for Johnny. However, as Nelly delves deeper into her past she now has to discover the truth for herself, as many more secrets are uncovered.
The beauty of Phoenix is its ability to carry through a premise that on first thought is so implausible that it seems impossible to pull off.
However, Petzold’s steady hand and unwavering confidence coupled with Hoss’ star quality (the pair have previously collaborated six times) create a film that possesses great tension and mystery, as Nelly appears to be genuinely tortured. In this way, the film goes to some lengths in presenting a detailed study of Nelly’s character as the camera lingers for what feels like too long on her face, her eyes sullen and hollow. Hoss is sublime in the central role, essentially playing a caricature of her former self, making legible a very complex character and situation to form a film that is very convincing. Similarly, Zehrfeld is equally glorious as Nelly’s desperate ex-husband whose depravity knows no bounds. Here it seems that Nelly’s path to recovery also involves dismantling her former relationship with Johnny in order to find the truth as she can no longer find solace in a man she cannot fully trust.
Phoenix begins to wrap itself up when a monologue by Lene reveals the true nature of Johnny’s depravity. As Nelly’s homecoming arrives and she is reunited with her old friendship group for the first time since her imprisonment she sings; her song of choice is Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s melody ‘Speak Low’ in which the lyrics are indicative of her new perspective, (“Love is a spark, lost in the dark too soon…”). And, as if by magic, Johannes finally sees through the midst as he is unable to deny the tone of this conveniently placed stranger’s voice, which at first is shallow and uneven, quickly rising as she gains confidence.
Phoenix is endlessly complex and reaches new heights in spellbinding climax as it puts on display the creative perceptions of the film’s director. Filmed with conviction, Nelly’s transformation is, like a phoenix rising reborn from the ashes, complete, as there is no turning back. And even as the camera blurs, making Nelly a mere smudge of colour on the screen, she walks away from Johnny in the belief that he is no longer the man he once was. Likewise, she is no longer the woman he once loved.
Review by Rayvenn Shaleigha D’Clark
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