Less a phoenix, more a chimera, Christian Petzold’s sixth collaboration with actress Nina Hoss is a shimmering, quicksilver thing. As the film draws to a hazy close – its images losing focus and becoming indistinct – it’s impossible to say quite what has passed before our eyes, but it feels overwhelmingly significant. This is cinema at its most ineffable and its most potent: a structure of gossamer and steel excavated from the debris of Europe’s history.
Certificate 12A 98m 5s
Director Christian Petzold
Nelly Lenz Nina Hoss
Johannes Lenz, ‘Johnny’ Ronald Zehrfeld
Lene Winter Nina Kunzendorf
The ghosts of Germany’s past have long been a structuring concern for Petzold. After films about the war in Afghanistan (Jerichow) and the legacy of the Berlin Wall (The State I Am In, Wolfsburg, Ghosts, Yella), Phoenix takes us back to a moment in German history just after the end of World War II.
The film opens in darkness, with a car, a noirish jazz score and a woman without a face. This is Nelly (Hoss), a former singer and concentration-camp survivor whose skull has been shattered by a bullet. We never see the damage wrought by that gunshot, only the shame on the face of the American guard who insists the bandages be removed, and the jaundiced bruises that linger after Nelly’s visage has been recreated, not reconstructed, through plastic surgery. In these times there are certain advantages to having a new face, and Nelly – Hoss – is beautiful. But that’s beside the point: Nelly no longer recognises herself; indeed, in her own words, she “no longer exists”.
The story that follows this unsettling introduction is a slow unravelling, full of hints and feints: an intricate weave of tangled knots and dropped stitches from which, very slowly, the truth of the past begins to emerge. Nelly is looking for her beloved pianist husband Johnny, a gentile, but her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a clerk in the Hall of Jewish Records, is deliberately keeping them apart, for reasons that emerge only slowly and in fragments. Lene wants to leave Germany and its horrors, to start a new life in Palestine; Nelly is unswerving. When she finally finds Johnny, however, he recognises only a glancing resemblance to the wife he believes to be dead. Wanting to access her fortune (inherited from relatives massacred in the war), he asks Nelly – now going by the name of Esther – to pose as herself.
Petzold, a gifted storyteller who wrote the screenplay in collaboration with the late Harun Farocki, plays cleverly with questions of knowledge, belief and identity, the impenetrability of his characters creating a suspenseful, uncertain atmosphere in which we are never sure what is deceit and what self-deceit. With no prostheses or masks, the inimitable Hoss looks just like Hoss, so why doesn’t Johnny recognise her? Why does Nelly herself play along? And why must she undergo a second transformation to ‘become’ Nelly? According to Johnny, this new woman is “too short” to be herself; she “walks strangely”; her hair is “awful”. He picks out dresses and lipstick for her, and forces her to practise her lines and entrances again and again. Little matter if Nelly insists that it’s hardly authentic to have an Auschwitz survivor return in high heels and chignon: “They want to see Nelly, not a raggedy camp returnee,” Johnny tells her.
This damning line gestures to the film’s concern not just with Germany’s past but also with the failure of art – and cinema in particular – to tell stories about it. Phoenix is packed with references to film and its history, from its noir aesthetic – elegantly rendered by Petzold’s regular collaborators, cinematographer Hans Fromm and production designer K.D. Gruber – to its central premise, which treads a line between the horror and thriller genres and calls to mind such works as Eyes Without a Face (1960), A Woman’s Face (1941) and of course Vertigo (1958). Characters make mention of Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon (1929), of UFA stars Zarah Leander and Kristina Söderbaum (both potential models for Nelly’s new face), and of Jewish escapee Hedy Lamarr, in whose image Johnny wants to fashion his wife. The spectres of Lili Marleen (1981) and Cabaret (1972) hover over the red-lit nightclub – the Phoenix of the film’s title – where Johnny works; and with his delicate features, bearish frame and ambiguous morals, Ronald Zehrfeld’s Johnny brings to mind Robert Mitchum.
It’s telling that Johnny rehearses his dead wife’s reunion scene – directing and playing with unnerving accuracy not only his part but also that of all their friends – beside a set of rail tracks, which obviously reference the death trains but are also reminiscent of dolly tracks. The staging of this rehearsal scene thus haunts its later enactment, a tour de force of subtext and layering that is both breathtakingly cinematic and achingly hollow.
A work of rare subtlety, Phoenix shows us how time and again Adorno has been proven wrong: poetry after Auschwitz is not barbaric; it can be gorgeous, Technicolor, star-studded. Petzold’s genius lies in at once aping that glamorous model and offering a haunting, and very welcome, corrective.
The past is not myself
A concentration camp survivor, her face altered by surgery, returns to the ruins of postwar Berlin to track down her husband, in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, a complex melodrama with a clear debt to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. By Neil Young.