Film Review – Phoenix
After seeing Phoenix, I always think of the film as being in black and white (it is not), with only little details in color: the red dress, a shade of lipstick, the husband’s eyes. Comparisons to Vertigo aside, the film is more of a companion piece to noir thrillers of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s like Rebecca, with its German Expressionist skeleton looming over the frame in yawning shadows and disjointed angles. For our main character, emerging from one nightmare has led her to another: a looking-glass world where familiarity breeds only fear, confusion, and heartbreak.
Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) is the lone survivor of her Jewish family from the concentration camps, has returned to the ruins of Berlin to try to start her life over. To begin with, she must have reconstructive surgery due to trauma to the facial bones. The surgery will alter her face, and the doctor asks her, “How do you want to look?” He shows her pictures of German film actresses of the era. Nelly wants to look like herself, but the doctor says that is impossible, and encourages her that a new face equals a fresh start. One rainy night after the surgery, her face and head wrapped in gauze, Nelly follows a fellow patient to the hospital office where photographs of their original faces are displayed on tagboard. In her striped pajamas, looking at a photo of a blurry figure surrounded by long-gone friends, Nelly stands still for a long time, unable to move forward or back.
Christian Petzold both directed and wrote the screenplay with Harun Farocki from the novel by Hubert Monteilhet, and the sense of loss and being lost they infuse in the film speaks not just for Nelly but for all Jewish survivors after World War II, faced with returning to the countries in which they faced persecution, to other areas of Europe where they would start with little or no community, or to the newly allocated lands for the Jewish people in the Middle East. Still reeling from shock and trauma, Nelly is consumed by the life she had before the war that has left the Berlin around her a spook’s gallery of hollowed-out buildings and piles of bricks and rubble.
Her friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), assures her that this is a time for reconstruction and recreation. With Nelly’s inheritance, her disfigurement was corrected and now they can go anywhere. Nelly wants to find her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), despite Lene saying that he abandoned her. Before, she had been a singer and he a pianist, so she begins to scour the nightclubs in some of the unsavory parts of town. The Phoenix is tucked in a short alley, glowing red from its sign and entrance; cabaret singers inside sing Cole Porter with seductively painted eyes affixed to their backs. She spots Johnny as he busses tables, but even though she calls out to him, he looks through her and goes back to work.
Hoss is luminescent in her command of each frame, her bruises from surgery still dotting her face as her wide eyes search for answers. She aches for connection, so much that when she returns to the club the next day and is propositioned by Johnny to scam money from the government, she mechanically agrees. The trouble is that the money is her inheritance, and Johnny wants her because she resembles his “dead” wife enough to pass inspection as a war survivor. Had this movie been made seventy years ago, it could have starred Farley Granger and Joan Fontaine, so classic is the interplay between the rakishly handsome Johnny and the conflicted Nelly.
Over the next few days, she remains hidden in Johnny’s basement flat, practicing the persona of his late wife over and over until he approves. Lene is furious and begs Nelly to leave with her to the Holy Land or the sea, but Nelly loves Johnny and regards her old self almost as a detached memory. “I know he loved her,” Nelly says, speaking about herself, “I don’t believe he betrayed her.” Petzold increases the separation between reality and image in the scenes where New Nelly transforms into Old Nelly by practicing her walk, her handwriting, the way she wore clothes. Johnny stages everything with a critical eye and buys her hair dye and makeup to look younger while she stays in her prison basement, savoring the tiny moments when they are together at breakfast.
When it comes time to make up a story to explain the sudden appearance of “Nelly,” the truth of her time in the camps is something she can’t ape or make up. She remembers her job which was to go through the abandoned clothes of people newly arrived off the trains for money or jewels. This is contrasted against the confidence game she is participating in with Johnny to take the inheritance of a supposed dead woman.
The last time Nelly sees Lene, the former is dressed in red and the latter in blue. They speak of betrayal and death. Nelly insists that Johnny brought her back to herself, that it wasn’t a “real” betrayal he committed all those years ago. As a performer, the costumes and makeup and sets may belie the truth, but sound and music bring Nelly back to reality, however painfully. From the screech of a train arriving at the station to the words of love coming from a liar’s mouth, her past looms over her, daring her to decide whether to go forward or back.We don’t need Nelly’s final, gorgeous rendition of “Speak Low” to make the decision explicit; the numbers carved into her arm accomplish that. (A)