Friday, September 11, 2015

Review: Phoenix

by Mark Ahn
The latest from German director Christian Petzold is a small, tightly wound story that on the surface involves a mistaken identity in post-World War II Germany, but twists itself into something different.

Longtime Petzold collaborator Nina Hoss plays Nelly, who we meet as she’s being transported by her friend, Lene, from a concentration camp to Berlin for treatment. Nelly’s face has been severely damaged from her imprisonment, and she requires immediate reconstructive surgery, which leaves her appearance radically altered.
Nelly slowly recuperates, and begins to wonder about her loved ones, especially about her husband Johnny. She goes out on her own at night, sifting amongst the many displaced people who’ve found themselves in Berlin after the war. She succeeds in finding him, busing tables at a jazz club called PHOENIX, but he does not recognize her. In an even stranger turn of events, he later seeks her out and asks her to impersonate his dead wife so he can acquire the rights to her family’s wealth, offering to split the money with her. In this way, Nelly is forced to impersonate herself with the man she loves but who believes her to be dead. Does she refuse the offer, and instead impress upon him the truth of her identity? Or does she play along, hoping that by biding time Johnny eventually will come to recognize her?

Hoss plays Nelly with great depth and nuance, bringing the physically and emotionally shattered prisoner alive with a shuffling, uneasy physicality, punctuated by her large, startled eyes. As Nelly steadies herself into her new face and her new life, her back is a little straighter, her eyes clearer, and her words are more sure. The interplay between her and Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) are my favorite parts in the movie, as multiple levels of meaning appear in their conversations: Nelly leaving breadcrumbs for Johnny to follow, Johnny hinting at something like recognition but stopping short of conceding anything. The characters’ interactions grow more tense, but they are not completely sure why the tension grows, which makes it compelling to watch.
Nelly’s choice to stay and hold onto her old life is a representation of what many survivors of the war experienced. Although few had a dramatic a transformation as Nelly did in her plastic surgery, the unfamiliarity she experiences with her own body and new life parallels the many levels of alienation that survivors faced as they tried to return to normal. Their homes were gone from the cities that were now destroyed to point of anonymity, and their families were dead or disappeared. Many decided to stay and re-start their lives in the rubble, while others decided to leave and start fresh where the memory of trauma was less. Wouldn’t finishing the war with one’s life be enough of a victory? It definitely is, but we see that the task of survival is more complicated once the war ended. Petzold avoids the pitfalls of a Holocaust/World War II movie becoming too large and unwieldly by focusing it on the specific struggle of one individual. Nelly’s choice may seem a little na├»ve or overly nostalgic, but it never feels that way because we understand the difficulty of completely cutting ties from every part of life.

The camera moves with a deliberate pace, never calling attention to itself, but subtly, gracefully setting up the frame, which is draped with the spare color palette of war torn Germany. Although clearly a story set in the real world, Petzold adds some flourishes with his lighting and his placement of objects, hinting at the heightened reality that exists between the truth and the lie in which Nelly finds herself.
Ultimately, the story resolves in what I consider to be the best ending for a movie I’ve seen this year. It’s been discussed often on this site how a strong ending can really make the opinion for a movie, and that’s the case here. It’s not that the movie was uneven throughout and the strong ending sticks the landing; it’s more the case that the ending is the logical endpoint for all of the events that led up to it, and acts as a perfect endpoint for our narrative, although we can imagine the story moving on with its own momentum.

Phoenix opened in 2014 on festival circuit and in its native Germany; it opened in July 2015 in the U.S and is still in limited release.


  1. I saw this on Wednesday here in NY, and it quietly blew my mind. Not to give too much anyway, but if your movie introduces Chekhov's gun in the first act it better give me a compelling reason why my expectations of that gun re-appearing (which it does, though not in the way I expected) aren't met. "Phoenix's" ending that left me screaming on the inside and shaking my imaginary fists at the screen for stopping where it does. I so wanted to see what happened next: reaction shots, fallout, etc. Then I realized this is how Nelly gets her true voice back, and that this is her choice. Besides, a movie that has worked so well it leaves you wanting to know more about its characters rather than less has worked. It's got a handful of too-incredible coincidences and tough-to-buy scenes of Johnny not seeing what's in front of him (Ronald Zehrfeld's acting fine, but he's no Jeremy Irons in "M. Butterfly"), but I stuck with it until the end and was amply rewarded... and frustrated. Nina Hoss is equally compelling, though she plays a character so self-delusional and shell-shocked that it takes a supporting character literally sacrificing him/herself for Nelly to open her eyes.

    I don't see how "Phoenix" doesn't make my Top 10 of 2015, it's a fountain of creative youth in an OK summer that's had more flashy sizzle than depth. Who knew there were still creative ways to tackle World War II without an 'R' rating and a ton of bloody corpses.

  2. JM - totally agree with your point that it does a good job avoiding the normal WW2 stuff. I think it will end up pretty close to the top in terms of my favorites for this year as well.

    My movie-watching partner felt the same you did about the ending: it was great, but frustrating. What happens next?!