D: Christian Petzold / 98m
Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Michael Maertens, Imogen Kogge
Nelly (Hoss) is a former nightclub singer who was interned in a concentration camp during World War II and subsequently disfigured. At the war’s end she undergoes reconstructive surgery that makes her look as close as possible to her real self. The resemblance is striking but there are enough differences that she could be mistaken for someone else. Nelly recovers from her surgery with the help of fellow survivor, Lene (Kunzendorf). When Nelly is better, Lene wants both of them to emigrate to Israel, but Nelly has other ideas: she wants to return to Berlin and find her husband, Johnny (Zehrfeld).
Her search takes her to the Phoenix club, where she finds Johnny, but there is no happy reunion. When he sees her, Johnny doesn’t recognise her, but he does see the resemblance and comes up with a plan to claim Nelly’s inheritance. After a period in which he will teach her to “be” Nelly, he will present her to their families and friends, and pass her off as his wife. Nelly goes along with the plan. She keeps quiet about her identity in the hope that Johnny will one day recognise her, but those hopes are cruelly dashed when Lene learns that Johnny was the person who deposed her to the authorities and which led to her being taken to the concentration camp (and then divorced her the day after).
Upset by this news, Nelly becomes ambivalent towards Johnny and begins to question his plan and its chances of succeeding. She drops hints about her true identity but he doesn’t pick up on them. She challenges him and makes things more difficult for him when he tries to tell her about their past, questioning what he tells her. She also changes the way she is asked to dress and behave, subtly altering the balance of power in their relationship. As the time approaches when Nelly is due to “return”, she must make the decision to either reveal the truth, or go along with the deception.
A mordant, austere tale about one woman’s attempt to reconstruct her life and reconnect with her past, but under unexpected conditions, Phoenix is the sixth collaboration between Petzold and Hoss, and a great example of contemporary German cinema.
Adapted by Petzold from the novel Return from the Ashes by Hubert Monteilhet, Phoenix is a quietly gripping examination of memory and identity, and the ways in which each can undermine the other. From the movie’s beginning, with Nelly about to undergo the surgery she hopes will give her her life back, it’s clear that she has lost more than just her looks. She’s lost her sense of self, and by looking as much as possible as she did – and not differently as recommended by her surgeon – she has faith that this will restore her. But what is really missing is the self-confidence she had before she was interned, and even looking as she did, she’s still hesitant and unsure of herself.
When it comes to actually rebuilding her life with Johnny she doesn’t find it easy, her emotional fragility keeping her subdued and unwilling to jeopardise the duplicitous scheme her ex-husband has come up with. Being able to do the “role” justice begins to change matters, Nelly slowly gaining in confidence until she is as much in control of Johnny’s scheme as he is – if not more so. The power play that develops between them adds tension and a deeper emotional complexity than up til now, and as Nelly begins to assert herself – and not the impostor version she’s adopted – her sense of pride develops as well. The final scene shows just how far Nelly has come, and it’s a rewarding moment both for her and for the viewer (if not for Johnny).
With Nelly finding that Johnny’s memories of their marriage lack any residual warmth or fondness, she also has to come to terms with the idea that her view of their marriage may not be as truthful as she believed. As she struggles to maintain that wilting perspective, the moment when she puts it all behind her and decides to move forward is put off until the very end, leaving the movie balanced on a cinematic precipice. Mean-spirited it may be, but whether or not Nelly and Johnny do go back to each other after all their plotting, is largely irrelevant. That Nelly now has a choice in the decision is what matters, and by the look on Johnny’s face at the end, it’s not a choice he’s looking forward to her making.
As the uncertain, deceptively enigmatic Nelly, Hoss puts in a superb performance, perfectly capturing the various fears, worries and concerns of a person playing a part and slowly learning how empowering it can be. Hoss is one of the best actresses working in movies today, and she gives a measured, quietly authoritative performance that shows her complete command of the character and her (somewhat skewed) behaviour. It’s a fantastic achievement, outwardly clinical in that detached manner people expect from German actors, but ruinously emotional underneath, emoting often with just her eyes, her expressionless face hiding the inner turmoil Nelly feels inside. It’s an acting masterclass, the kind of role that would go to Nicole Kidman if there was an English language remake (though let’s hope there isn’t).
With his lead actress having such firm control over the main character, Petzold is free to highlight the emotional and psychological aspects of his script, keeping “Nelly” hidden away for most of the movie, even when the war is over and she’s forced to hide behind the surgery she’s had. Petzold (with Hoss’s help of course) brings Nelly to life with painstaking attention to the more poignant aspects of her tale, most notably in a scene where by dressing as she once did Nelly hopes to reignite a spark in Johnny’s heart, that even though he doesn’t feel toward her as he did before the War, that he might do so now, even though she’s different. It’s an incredibly touching, hopeful moment, beautifully and sensitively acted by Hoss and Zehrfeld, and on its own, one of the most powerful scenes you’re likely to see all year.
The post-war period is effectively replicated and photographed (by Hans Fromm), and there’s a simple but equally effective score by Stefan Will (who has worked on all bar one of Petzold’s movies). It all adds up to a quietly engrossing tale that makes a virtue of keeping its main characters’ emotions hidden close under the surface, and by making Nelly’s struggle to unite her past and future all the more enthralling.
Rating: 8/10 – at first glance, Phoenix looks gloomy and uninviting, but Petzold is an astute director and the movie is far more passionate than it seems; with another outstanding performance from Hoss, this is a movie that exceeds expectations and does so with honesty and tremendous skill from its makers.