Few contemporary movies manage to capture the spirit of a bygone historical era. Even fewer combine this feat with a successful evocation of that era’s defining artistic traditions. Christian Petzold’s rapturous World War II thriller Phoenix is one such rarity. The cinema of the ’40s, characterised by morally ambiguous film noir and delirious melodramas, lacked the straightforward heroes of early swashbucklers and adventure stories. They were populated with phantoms, damaged people floating through a shattered world, looking to rebuild lost connections and shore up eroding selves. Aided by his fantastic cast, most significantly lead actress and long-time muse Nina Hoss, Petzold conjures up that sense of spiritual and physical dislocation with uncanny precision. If not for the coloured image, one could easily be convinced that Phoenix is a prime example of wartime/post-war cinema, meticulously crafted by a Hitchcock, Welles or Cukor.
Hoss, absolutely extraordinary here, plays Nelly Lenz, a Jewish singer who survived the concentration camps but not without being shot in the face and left for dead. With the aid of her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), she returns to Berlin to undergo facial reconstruction but, despite her pleas, the surgeon is unable to make her look exactly like she used to. The new face is beautiful but it is not her face. Sensing her identity and sense of self peeling away from her, she spends her nights wandering amidst the rubble of a predator-infested and bombed-out Berlin which, if you’ll permit the ouroboros of referentiality, looks like Blade Runner’s Los Angeles minus the futuristic trappings. She’s searching for her piano-player husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) who, according to Lene, betrayed her to the Nazis. Lene wants Nelly to accompany her to Haifa where the pair has been allotted land but Nelly, still in love and full of doubts, continues to look, convinced that Johnny represents her only real shot at putting herself back together.
Also present and accounted for are other conventions frequently used by Hitchcock in particular and noir mysteries in general.But to continually equate Petzold’s film with its spiritual predecessors is to do it a disservice. It has its own distinctive delights.
My early reference to Hitchcock was no accident. Phoenix is definitely shades of Vertigo, only from a reverse perspective. And like Hitchcock’s masterpiece, it’s a lurid, darkly romantic melodrama with perversely morbid undercurrents. Also present and accounted for are other conventions frequently used by Hitchcock in particular and noir mysteries in general: doubles, ironic reversals, a pervasive atmosphere of paranoia and uncertainty. But to continually equate Petzold’s film with its spiritual predecessors is to do it a disservice. It has its own distinctive delights. Chief among them is Nina Hoss’ riveting performance. Hoss, as evidenced by her work in Petzold’s previous films (especially 2012’s Barbara), is fast becoming the German equivalent of Juliette Binoche, a powerhouse performer whose work conceals as much as it reveals and in just the right proportions. Her performance is Phoenix’s greatest and most compelling mystery, partially disconnected from the body over which it plays out, as befitting the role of a woman wearing a face not quite her own. The opacity of her work here is not the studied obtuseness of the self-consciously arthouse but, instead, entirely organic to the character and her traumas. In one riveting scene, Nelly notices a reflection of her new face in — ironically — a shard of glass from a broken mirror lying in the ruins of her former home. It’s as memorable a performative moment as any I’ve encountered, Hoss’ expressions ebbing and flowing around the horrifying dissonance of wearing an alien face followed by the realisation that it’s the only one she has left. If we’re considering the concept of acting as metaphor — for sacrifice, for postwar rebuilding of self and society — this performance is it.
As Nelly unravels the film’s mysteries, mostly as they relate to Johnny’s role in what’s befallen her, it grows steadily more devastating. Love feels like a corrupted fantasy instead of a wellspring of hope when she finally finds Johnny in the titular nightclub, a surreal American riff on Weimar-era hotspots, only for him to see her as a stranger who looks just enough like his wife to help him claim her inheritance. It’s all quite heartbreaking. How do you respond when the person you love tells you that you’re not a convincing enough representation of, well, you? The process by which Nelly does gradually figure out how to react is at the heart of the film’s essential tragedy. What’s easier, discovering the truth about yourself or the truth about those around you? As it turns out, neither option is necessarily painless.