How we identify ourselves is what defines us. For some, it’s their ethnicity or heritage. Others may use physical markers; their face, their mannerisms, the sound of their own voice. If that identity is stripped from us, how will we recognize ourselves? How will others recognize us? Director Christian Petzold’s shattering portrait of a woman adrift in post-WWII Berlin forgoes wishful sentimentality in favor of painful re-discovery. The result is a quietly-devastating film that will haunt you for weeks to come.
Before the war started, Nelly (Nina Hoss) knew exactly who she was. She sang in jazz clubs, accompanied by her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) on piano. Johnny is the love her life, despite his obvious failings as a reliable husband. They enjoyed a peaceful existence of holiday retreats to Paris and afternoon luncheons with friends.
And then the war came.
It’s hard to decide if surviving made Nelly one of the lucky ones. Most of her friends and family were killed, but she was betrayed to the Nazis and interned in a concentration camp. So horrific were her injuries that she was mistaken for dead and left behind by her retreating captors. Nelly’s friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), tormented by the treachery of her countrymen, sets about restoring one small part of her world; reconstructing Nelly’s disfigured face and ushering her to Palestine. Ever the devoted wife, Nelly immediately sets about locating Johnny, despite Lene’s claims that it was Johnny who sold her out to the Nazis. How will Nelly be able to recognize the truth when she can’t even recognize her own face in the mirror?
Phoenix resides in the ethereal space between a waking nightmare and a growing realization. Veteran German director, Christian Petzold, creates a fragile world where everyone is trying to find their place amidst the still-smoldering rubble. Nelly, a talented, independent-minded woman before the war, now walks as though she’s tiptoeing around landmines. Her desperation to re-connect with that idyllic past only furthers the devolution that began in the concentration camps.
Petzold and cinematographer Hans Fromm frame each scene around the edges of impenetrable darkness and shimmering light. A shattered mirror yields a disorienting reflection, or a quiet voice penetrates the shadows. It all contributes to an image you can’t quite bring into focus. Nelly’s story is dotted with tiny details, but it never coalesces into a psychologically-satisfying story. There is no closure here. What’s more, the filmmakers aren’t particularly interested in the specifics of Nelly’s harrowing story. They’re after reconciliation, instead. At some point, each of these characters must reconcile their past with the present. To recognize their own shadowy reflection is to accept what has unraveled behind them.
The script, co-written by Petzold and Harun Farocki (based on the novel Le Retour des cendres by Hubert Monteilhet), is, like its heroine, economical with words. Spoken in German with musical interludes in English, Phoenix feels like a refugee in its own country. Everywhere there are lost souls. “I no longer exist,” Nelly laments after seeing her reconstructed face. There is no need for lengthy soliloquys or rambling diatribes; words can’t heal her wounds. Instead, Petzold and Farocki entrust their actors to convey the emotional turmoil with a gesture or downturned glance. The result is a film with deafening silences you yearn to be filled with an emotional release that never materializes.
Phoenix is filled with these moments of quiet desperation. Like the decimated gaze of a wife rendered unrecognizable to her husband, and the realization that, perhaps, he’s happier with her dead. “Alive she was poor, dead she’s rich,” Johnny confides in Nelly, oblivious to her true identity. It’s a crushing moment that Nelly can’t betray with her tears. These moments accumulate until they reach a conclusion that will leave you completely shattered. You may see it coming, but there’s no way to prepare for its impact.
Nina Hoss gives a master’s class in physical acting. She must be content to sit… to listen. You can feel her longing to connect with Johnny—to share her ordeal—but he never provides the satisfaction of a proper release. Hoss remains eerily still, like a mouse that has learned to keep quiet when the innkeeper is sweeping. When she finally unleashes her powerful voice, it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard, yet utterly soul crushing. Hoss deserves every accolade that comes her way this awards season.
Phoenix is not an easy film to watch. It demands patience. It will break your heart, even as it re-affirms your faith in the amazing human capacity for survival. Not existing may truly be a fate worse than death, but to re-connect with those cherished things that once identified us is a divine act of creation. Phoenix is one of the year’s best films.