How is it possible that other than the Village Voice‘s always insightful Stephanie Zacharek, practically none of the best film critics have recognized Christian Petzold’s Phoenix as the masterpiece it is?
Years of middlebrow movies shamelessly mining the horrors of the Holocaust to win awards have made it seem like there is no point in revisiting the subject, but Petzold’s film works as an alarm clock awakening us from the nap induces by these prestige pictures, and framing the infinite loss of one of humanity’s darkest hour within the mythical conventions of cinema. The less elegant way to say this is that Phoenix is a movie that doesn’t announce itself as anything other than a melodramatic thriller, and is all the more devastating for it.
This is the story of Nelly (Nina Hoss), a concentration camp survivor who, once the war is over, tries to reunite with her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). But it’s not so simple. While she was at the camps, Nelly was shot in the face and left for dead by the Nazis. She survived, but was severely disfigured. Reconstructive surgery gave her a new face, but one that she doesn’t recognize as her own, and once she finally finds her husband working at the “Phoenix” night club, neither does he. “You remind me of someone I knew” says Johnny. He has a plan. He asks this strange woman to impersonate his wife so that he can claim her inheritance.
As the movie goes on, it becomes less believable that Johnny wouldn’t realize this woman is his wife, and it’s then that one begins to understand the movie as a parable. We’re not in the realm of reality, we’re in the realm of movies. Petzold had already given us clues of his intent. The cinematography, stark light and shadow reminiscent of film noir, the swelling score, the movie’s own pulpy premise, they make Phoenix not a realistic depiction of post-war Germany, but a representation of the country’s (and the world’s) consciousness.
Nelly has risen from the ashes like a phoenix, but an equally appropriate classical allusion is that she, and the world around her, have stepped out of Plato’s cave. The horror of the Holocaust has forced the world to encounter the darkest side of human nature. Germany is recovering, and the world is pretending they can go back in the cave and look up to the shadowy projected ideals of the past, but the damage is done.
This is where the movie’s third character shows her importance. Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) is Nelly’s friend. She is the one who brought her back home from the camp, she stood beside her during her surgery, and she houses her while she recovers. She also suggests they should go away and start a new life in Palestine. She’s sick of the way everyone pretends things can go back to normal. She wants the virgin opportunity of the promised land. “Maybe then we can sing and hear German songs again”, she says.
But Nelly doesn’t want to go away. She doesn’t even identify as jewish. She wants to find her husband, the pianist that played alongside her back when she was a cabaret singer. She looks in the mirror and is horrified. She wants her face back. That, of course, is impossible. Before her surgery she asks her doctor to make her look like before. He says that’s not a good idea. It’s impossible to make her look exactly like she did before, and what’s more, there are advantages to having a different face.
The truth is that Nelly despises her new face. She searches for the happiness that seems to have disappeared from the world, but can’t possibly be attained. In Phoenix’s haunting final scene, we realize alongside Nelly that life has lost its meaning. The indifference of tragedy is overwhelming. The survivor can’t go back to the life of the past because it never existed. At the same time, the reconciled future is only play acting.
It is all there in the song “Speak Low”, which plays a couple times during the movie, “we’re late, darling, we’re late… everything ends too soon, too soon”. Where can we turn, when the dream of humanity has finally been broken?
9 out of 10 (I’m tempted to go for the 10, but I think I will need some time just to be sure)