By Zhuo-Ning Su.
Marking the sixth collaboration of what’s shaping up to be the most compelling and fruitful auteur-actor duo in modern German cinema, writer/director Christian Petzold’s Phoenix starring Nina Hoss is a well-realized drama with a singular concept soaring in its intellectual reach and emotional resonance.
Set in a ruinous post-war Berlin, the film tells the story of a disfigured Holocaust survivor Nelly (Hoss) who returns home after receiving facial reconstruction surgery on the assistance of a friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), only to find that the love of her life, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), doesn’t recognize her anymore. What happens next, a scheme proposed by a supposedly unknowing Johnny and entered into by a devastated Nelly, which builds the central conceit of the plot, would strike many as implausible. But to those willing to bear with the initial rawness of the premise, the payoff is bountiful. Namely, you find out the film is really tapping into the behavior/performance divide to probe a very fundamental part of our being and, in the process, examine the idea of identity against the backdrop of the most traumatized and confused time in human memory. By having one protagonist who’s either habitually deceitful or in serious denial and another whose entire history has just been wiped out, the script confronts you to with questions like “What makes a self a self?” or “How do you re-establish individuality where collectives have been labeled and destroyed?” Questions no less chilling and profound to consider, even if the way they’re asked is, in contrast to conventional WWII movies that often hit on similar subjects through angry depictions of Nazi-atrocities, much quieter in tone.
Contributing vitally to the success of this somewhat fanciful storytelling is the tremendous principal cast of three. Unhindered by his hulky frame, Zehrfeld is quickly establishing himself to be a chameleonic presence in recent years. After playing goofy and vulnerable in the delightful Finsterworld (2013) and righteous and indignant in the rousing Wir waren Könige (The Kings Surrender) (2014), he pulls off the charming sleaze who may or may not have committed the ultimate betrayal. Kunzendorf, who German viewers know as a sassy police officer from the popular TV show Tatort, plays against type and gives us a woman steely in appearance, certain in judgment but who is secretly caught between a past she can’t return to and a future she doesn’t know how to face. It’s a beautifully unaffected performance that does justice to a character whom we only realize we know so little about after its exit. And then there’s Nina Hoss. Like other brilliant, instinctive European actresses of her generation, Hoss doesn’t let her statuesque looks get in the way of disappearing into a role and, as evidenced by Yella (2007) and Barbara (2012), her last two collaborations with Petzold, she does so by even less acting and more plain inhabiting than say, Cotillard or Winslet. This tendency is possibly why Nelly would not go down as her best on-screen creation, because it demands so much ostensible “acting” on her part. That said, it’s never less than riveting to watch her regal stature and here skeletal face at work. With a mixture of humiliation, exhaustion and suspicion, she nails the slight muscle twitch of someone no longer sure of how they look as well as that almost apologetic air of someone oft corrected on how to convincingly behave as themselves.
Direction-wise, Phoenix proves a significant departure from Petzold’s filmography, not in terms of the intense intimacy his films are known for, which this movie still very much possesses, but the aesthetic richness his minimalistic approach hitherto largely avoided. The interior design of both the living spaces and the Phoenix Club is unexpectedly striking and the classy coiffures, retro glasses and pantaloons provide eye-candy galore. All that is shot with a sumptuous texture and depth that one also wouldn’t necessarily associate with Petzold’s work. The movie’s also a lesson on lighting, which is often dim but never insufficient, always purposeful in its use of shades and shadows. And although the abundant use of silhouettes, darkened shapes, partially obscured faces and back views in a story about identities might be a bit too literal to be called masterful, in many cases these shots do actually say more about a character or their circumstances than anything explicit could.
Seldom would a year pass without the German cinema producing a handful of new NS-themed films. As decent as this self-reflective gesture is, it does get tiring. Phoenix, refreshingly, tackles the inhuman regime and its consequences from a strictly personal angle and dazzles. Embodied by that perfect ending jazzy and blurry in every sense, this is a delicate, incisive, spellbinding movie from a filmmaking team with no reason to stop anytime soon.
Zhuo-Ning Su is a PhD candidate in law at the Free University of Berlin. His writing on film has appeared in The Berlin Film Journal and EXBERLINER.