Directed by Christian Petzold
Phoenix takes place in Berlin, shortly after the end of World War II. It’s a bombed out city with rubble in the streets but with thriving night clubs. Everyone, it seems, just wants to forget about what happened.
The protagonist is Nelly (Nina Hoss), a survivor of the concentration camps only because she was shot in the face and believed to be dead. When we first meet her she is smothered underneath stained bandages, and the doctor working on her facial reconstruction tries to spin the situation, saying it’s a blessing that she can begin life as a new person.
Nelly doesn’t see it that way. She wants to look exactly as she did before, and she yearns to track down her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), to put things back in place precisely as they were before the war. What she can’t bear to consider, as her friend and guardian angel Lene tells her, is that it was Johnny who betrayed her and got her sent to the camps.
Not long after she is back on her feet and her bandages nearly gone, Nelly finds Johnny. She calls out to him, he looks at her and sees right through her. She comes to the conclusion that she doesn’t exist.
Later she hangs around the nightclub where he busses tables, and this time Johnny considers her in a new light. He tells her she looks like his dead wife, and he has it in mind for Nelly to pretend to be Nelly so that they can recoup her wealthy inheritance and split it 50/50.
From there the Vertigo parallels are impossible to miss, a controlling man trying to mold a woman into the memory of a dead woman, all while he’s completely oblivious to the fact that she is the woman he’s trying to recreate. In text perhaps it’s just melodramatic and beyond belief, but I’m getting the sense that Christian Petzold knows how to handle melodrama.
His characters yearn for something, all while they exist in the face of oblivion. They might live in purgatory or some fever dream, one they seem to have walked into out of thin air, and at the end it often seems like they’re set to vanish just as quickly as they appeared.
His stories are as concerned with their environment as they are with the plot. His characters live in the wake of the Berlin Wall or the utter destruction of World War II. They are tied to the civic instability, products of it even.
In this proximity to oblivion there exists an opportunity to remake yourself. Several of his characters, be it in Yella, Jerichow, Phoenix or Transit, become new people, possibly just because they never had any real identity to begin with. In the latter two films the protagonist literally assumes the identity of another person, and in Transit this will yield almost paranormal effects, as if the new identity has become more authentic than the old one.
Phoenix might be his best film. It’s just such a delight, both on the surface and underneath. While Nelly wants to forge the past back into existence, everyone else wants to deny that it ever happened. Johnny calmly, and correctly, tells her that no one will ask her about the camps because they don’t want to acknowledge the obvious pain there. And he’s right. Characters from before welcome her back as if she was simply on a long sabbatical.
In one scene late in the film Lene will deliver perhaps the line of the film, the most succinct description for the mood of the entire story. She writes to Nelly and explains that she feels closer to the dead than the living. I found it to be such an eye-opening line because it explains the completely understandable sense of isolation she and Nelly would feel from the world around them, a world that not only tried to kill them and did kill so many of them, but which now denies them the right to grieve.
And I think that line could be applied to all of Petzold’s films as a whole, that he and his characters find more in common with the oppressed, the ostracized and the beaten, the ones climbing out of the rubble, finding little joy in their return, and choosing to climb back in.
Up Next: The Parts You Lose (2019), Parasite (2019), The Lighthouse (2019)