Directed by: Christian Petzold.
Written by: Christian Petzold and Harun Farocki based on the novel by Hubert Monteilhet.
Starring: Nina Hoss (Nelly Lenz), Ronald Zehrfeld (Johannes 'Johnny'), Nina Kunzendorf (Lene Winter), Michael Maertens (Arzt), Imogen Kogge (Elisabeth).
Phoenix is an example of how one scene can elevate an entire movie. The majority of the film is quite good – an obvious homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) that strikes a more somber tone, which is appropriate since the main character is a woman who has just been released from Auschwitz, at the end of WWII. Phoenix is a very good movie for most its runtime – smart, sensitive, wonderfully photographed and acted. But it is the final scene of Phoenix that truly makes the movie a must-see – it is a quiet stunner.
The film opens with Nelly (Nina Hoss) being driven back across the border into Germany by her friend, Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf). Nelly has suffered horribly at the camps – her face is bloody and scarred, and Line takes her to a plastic surgeon to repair the damage. The surgeon suggests picking an entirely new face – he’ll never be able to match it to precisely what it was before, and this way may be easier – but Nelly is insistent: she wants to look like her old self. The result is close – but not right on. Lene and Nelly are to stay in Germany for just a short while – Nelly is entitled to a significant amount of money inherited because his entire family was killed. After they receive it, Lene and Nelly are to go to Palestine – to help establish their new country. But Nelly doesn’t want to go – she wants to find Johnny – her non-Jewish husband. Lene tries to convince her not to – there is quite a bit of circumstantial evidence to suggest Johnny may well have been the one who turned Nelly in to the Germans in the first place. But Nelly wants her old life back. It doesn’t take her long to find Johnny – who now goes by Johannes – who sees her and immediately comes up with a plan. His wife, he tells her, is dead – but she looks similar enough that they may be able to fool people. If they can, they can split the money his wife is supposed to get. Thinking eventually he’ll figure out who she really is, and that he will love her when he does – Nelly agrees to take part in this plot – slowly being “taught” by Johnny to be his wife, who, of course, she already is.
This is a similar plot to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, of course, where James Stewarts falls in love with a woman who he cannot save, and tries to teach her doppelganger to be her – not knowing that the woman he is making over is the woman he originally fell in love with. Vertigo is a masterpiece – elected by the Sight & Sound survey in 2012 as the greatest film ever made. Phoenix is not in that league – but then again few films are. But Phoenix is a skillfully made film from the start – taking place in a bombed out Berlin, where every corner holds danger – as someone is looking to take advantage of Nelly. For her part, she is still suffering a pretty severe case of PTSD – not able to articulate her feelings, and living in a kind of denial. Her friends tries to snap her out of it, but it really is of no use. When Lene tries to convince her to go to Palestine, by telling Nelly, who worked as a singer before the war, that there is a Jewish choir she can join, Nelly asks her why she would want to join that – she isn’t Jewish. Of course, she is Jewish, even if she didn’t live like one before the war. She is trying to deny what has happened to her.
We see this in Johnny – and later in his friends – all of whom are non-Jewish Germans, who do not want to think at all about the “camps”, or what happened there – who do not want to accept any responsibility for them, or what happened. Nelly asks Johnny what she will say to people who want to know about the camps, and he tells her not to worry about it – no one will ask. He makes her up – so that when she steps off the train for the first time, she will be wearing a fancy dress and shoes. “Do you really think people leave the camps like that?” she asks him – and again, he doesn’t care, and says no one else will either. The German people would be far happier to just ignore what happened and move on. Johnny’s friend are welcoming to Nelly when she returns – and try to pretend like nothing happened. We see this throughout Phoenix – people denying the past, failing to see what is directly in front of them, because it’s easier not to.
Petzod is a talented director – and Hoss has become his muse (they have worked together at least 6 times now). Phoenix is even better than their last film – the wonderful Barbara (2012), about a doctor in East Germany in 1980, banished to the countryside. The film borrows more than just the basic plot from Hitchcock – but also some of his stylistics as well. The film is a slow burner, gradually building momentum until it final scene.
When that scene comes, it’s a stunner. Every review I have seen so far has highlighted the ending – and rightly so – it’s a perfect ending and done with subtlety and skill, and leaves the viewer devastated. Everything that came before that ending in Phoenix is very, very good. The ending is great – and as a result, it elevates the entire film.