Director: Christian Petzold
Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf
MPAA Rating: (for some thematic elements, and brief suggestive material)
Running Time: 1:38
Release Date: 7/24/15 (limited); 8/14/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 14, 2015
The woman so urgently needs to be herself that she will deny her identity. She so desperately wants the man she loves to see her as she is that she will pretend to be someone else. Phoenix is a film of ironies and paradoxes, built upon the notion that people will make themselves believe an assortment of lies in order to hold on to the deepest desires of their hearts. If that means overlooking or ignoring the truth when it's staring one right in the face, then so be it.
This is a film that requires us to suspend plenty of disbelief, but that comes easily when the performances are this rich and specific. It's also worth forgiving the story's somewhat repetitive structure and the way the film only scratches the surface of its ideas when the payoff is as satisfactory a low-key twist of the knife as it is here.
One thinks of that tried and true principle of Chekhov's gun when the screenplay by director Christian Petzold and Harun Farocki (based on Hubert Monteilhet's novel Le Retour des cendres) introduces, not one, but two pistols. One is indeed fired, as dictated by dramatic economy. What's fascinating about the ending is the way Petzold and Farocki replace one of the literal guns with a metaphorical one of sorts. It has been established throughout the film, although we may only register it on a subconscious level. The effect of this figurative gun may not be physically fatal, but nonetheless, it still possesses the power to kill and save in the way it's meant to do.
We are, obviously, way ahead of the game at this point, but perhaps the fact that the film's ending strikes such a staggering note says something vital about the film itself. In one way, the effect of that ending is cumulative. It's a testament to the way this story builds—at times, quite noticeably and, at others, almost imperceptibly, such as the realization that we have been told what will put the finishing touch on this tale from its beginning.
In another way, the film's final moments seem to stand apart from what has come before them. The final scene is about revelation and realization (Petzold and cinematographer Hans Fromm progressively lessen the pitch-black shadowing of the early scenes until that ending, when everything is illuminated). Those are things that, in hindsight, could have come at almost any other moment once the story proper begins. The impetus for the ending is a convenient, almost contrived one. After the fact, everything up to that point seems like a case of Petzold and Farocki delaying the inevitable.
Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) survived a concentration camp after she was shot in the face. The guards assumed she was dead. At the end of the war in Europe, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf, in an easy-to-overlook but potent performance), an attorney from a Jewish organization that is identifying the murdered and trying to relocate survivors to Palestine, brings Nelly back to a war-ravaged Berlin to undergo facial reconstruction surgery. Instead of selecting a different visage, Nelly is adamant that her face look as it did before the near-fatal gunshot wound.
This decision is vital to understanding Nelly's actions through the rest of the film. She wants her life to return to the way it was, ignoring the warnings from the few people who care that such restitution is simply not possible. It's why she wants to see her old home, even though it was bombed. It's why she goes out looking for her husband, even though Lene tells her she shouldn't because, based on the available evidence, it appears that Nelly's husband betrayed her to the Nazis.
Nelly eventually finds Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) at a night club in the American sector of the city. He doesn't recognize her as his wife, whom he believes died with the rest of her family during the war. He does think this woman looks enough like Nelly to pretend to be her with some training. His plan is to convince people that Nelly did survive the camp and has returned home, so he can collect the money from her estate.
We have to be convinced of two seemingly illogical points for this to work. First, we have to believe that Johnny would not realize that Nelly is, in fact, Nelly, despite her appearance and all other evidence. Zehrfeld's performance is a tricky one, then, but he focuses on Johnny's shortsightedness in his determination to get Nelly's assets, while still leaving the door slightly ajar to the notion that he really did love her.
Second, we must be persuaded that Nelly would endure this torturous charade without revealing the truth of her identity. That's a little easier to swallow, considering what we know about her love for this man, her desire to have things return to normal, and her growing suspicion about what Johnny may have done to her. That, though, doesn't make Hoss' performance any less effective. She strikes a perfect balance between Nelly's bewilderment with her husband's ignorance and her hope that she will somehow break through it. There are painful glimpses of those hopes being shattered every time he fails to recognize her. It's an odd balancing act of two absurdities working in tandem to make us believe the trick, and for the most part, Petzold and his actors make it work.
The film hints at some aspects of Nelly's status as a survivor of the Shoah and at some historical realities (Her need for Johnny to recognize her is also her need to tell her story, and his and other characters' dismissal or willful ignorance of her experience is intentionally troubling). The primary focus of Phoenix, though, is the dance of deception between these two characters, and it's engrossing enough to keep the doubts about the story itself at bay.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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