Germany. Directed by Christian Petzold, 2014. Starring Nina Hoss, Roland Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf. 98 minutes.
One of our favorite themes here at the Gallery is identity: what makes us who we are, the difference between who others think we are and who we really are, stuff like that. And you don’t need to be a doppelgänger thriller like Coherence or a philosophical mindfuck like The Skin I Live In to present an intriguing take on the subject. Case in point: the German post-war drama Phoenix.
Before World War II, Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) was a cabaret singer in Berlin. Having survived Aushwitz and undergone reconstructive surgery to repair the damage caused by a bullet wound to the face, she returns to the city she once called home, determined to reunite with her husband Johann (Roland Zehrfeld). When she finds him working at a nightclub in the American district, he doesn’t recognize her…but he does think she somewhat resembles the wife he believes dead. He enlists her in a scheme: the post-war Nelly will pose as the pre-war Nelly, so that Johann can claim her estate. Nelly agrees, but her friend Lene (Nina Kuzendorf) advises caution, claiming to have seen evidence that it was Johann who sold Nelly out to the Nazis in the first place…
Crucially, director Petzold (who also co-wrote, adapting a French novel) deals very little with flashback, leaving the viewer to speculate on the differences between the Nellys of the past and present. In Johann’s eyes, “Esther” doesn’t walk, talk, or wear makeup like the woman he married, and he must train her to take the place of the woman she doesn’t realize she actually is. But then again, the Nelly who entered Aushwitz isn’t the same one who left it. In a key scene, Nelly tells Lene she isn’t Jewish. I assume the camps eradicated that part of her identity.
Moreover, why doesn’t “Esther” tell Johann the truth? She defies Lene’s advice, insisting her husband still loves her, protesting his innocence of her friend’s accusations. But at the macro level, the Holocaust represented a vast betrayal by an entire nation against its own people. Perhaps that turned the trust that used to go unchallenged between a husband and wife becomes harder to regain as a result. Nelly tries to recapture a time before the war, for which her friend criticizes her. By contrast, Lene doesn’t even want to live in Germany anymore, constantly drawing plans for the two to emigrate to Palestine and the nascent Israeli state. (It may just be me, but I felt Petzold consistently implied deeper feelings on Lene’s part for Nelly.)
Petzold couches the story in the visual grammar of psychological thrillers and films noir, and comparisons to Hitchcock’s Vertigo abound, but Phoenix doesn’t really belong to either genre. That being said, he deploys that grammar effectively, particularly in the exterior shots of Berlin, a city divided and half-ruined, struggling to create a new version of itself, not quite assured of itself–much like the characters.
The ensemble digs for, and uncovers, the emotional truths behind their parts; particularly Hoss and Kunzendorf, but all the performances are excellent. The sorrowful, jazz-inflected score by Stefan Will (also incorporating elements of several songs of the era) sets the stage perfectly.
Phoenix is a stylish and insightful examination of the wounds left by tragedy, be it on an epic scale or a personal betrayal between two ordinary people. Psychological scars can’t be erased as easily as physical ones, as it turns out…not that we don’t already know that, but the film serves as a potent reminder. Highly recommended.