I watch a lot of movies. By my count, I logged 184 movies on Letterboxd.com in 2015, a smidge more than one every two days, and I’m aiming for more in 2016. Some of these are re-watches, but it’s still a movie experience that my brain is processing. Often times, I may enjoy a movie but not find it memorable. One of the reasons I started this review blog was to be able to capture my thoughts and maybe recall more than I initially remember about a film, such as why I loved it or didn’t care for it. Rare, but treasured, is the experience of watching a movie and having it stick with you for days and possibly weeks after you’ve seen it. Sometimes it is the whole film, sometimes all it takes is one scene. Christian Petzold’s Phoenix is one of these films. Widely acclaimed on many 2015 “Best Of” lists, I streamed it on Netflix recently and it has stuck with me over the last few days.
Set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Phoenix is a psychological drama centered on Nelly (Nina Hoss), a disfigured concentration camp survivor who has reconstructive surgery leaving her appearance slightly altered, to her dismay. She returns to Berlin with her friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) and begins searching for her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may or may not have betrayed her to the Nazis.
It is a small film, as it really only centers on the three characters, but given the emotional weight of the story, it is a huge film. A humongous amount of credit for this is due to the central performance of Nina Hoss. Her portrayal of Nelly is haunting, aching, and devastating in its subtleties.
Nelly is not just physically disfigured by the war, but emotionally and psychologically as well. When she walks through the streets, she is rigid and near-shuffling, her hands at her sides instead of swaying like a normal walking manner. She is quiet and withdrawn. We find out that she used to be a renowned signer and that Johnny was a pianist, but there seems to be no song left inside of her now, just a hollowed out body that used to be a person. The film is filled with her struggling with her identity and coming to grips with her new reality, the new face she sees in the mirror. You could argue that this stuff is commentary on post-war Germany and its own identity.
This is only exacerbated by her reconnecting with Johnny, who does not recognize her other than that she bears a passing resemblance to his presumed dead wife. Telling him that her name is Esther, he takes her in with the intention of claiming a large sum of money in her name. Ignoring his attempt at treachery because she is still in love with her him, and unsure of his betrayal, she tries everything in her power to make him recognize her, through subtle and slightly more overt means.
It requires a bit of suspension of disbelief and a few leaps of narrative logic to believe that Johnny doesn’t recognize her, or it could be that he psychologically doesn’t want to believe that she survived and that he buried her when she was taken away. Regardless, the interplay between Nelly and Johnny as he tries to instruct her on how to look and act like his wife is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Vertigo in the way it plays with identity in their interactions.
It culminates in a truly aching, poignant ending, which I thought was the best ending to any film all year. And it is this ending that has stuck with me, as everything is laid bare during a song. Again, it is powerful because it is subtle; subtle in the glances between Nelly and Johnny, subtle in the gestures that are made, and subtle in the limited camera angles and how the camera lingers on both of them. No words are shared between them, but their eyes speak volumes.
Phoenix is a film that evokes the spirit of Vertigo, a cinematic classic, but also creates its own haunted, beautifully tragic space to live in. Despite some plot leaps, it builds and builds on its psychological identity crisis to a profoundly devastating ending that is a triumphant acting feat by Hoss and Zehrfeld. I would love to see this film win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and get an Oscar nomination for Nina Hoss.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars