SUBMITTED BY David Canfield
“I’m more drawn to our dead than I am to our living.” Start to finish, the dramatically precise “Phoenix” takes its every cue from this encompassing, chillingly recited line of dialogue.
Director Christian Petzold fuses Hitchcockian tension with classical noir for his latest film. With “Phoenix,” he continues his thematic exploration of dual identity and romantic tragedy, bolstering the resonance of such ideas by working within a more abstract construct.
Set in postwar Berlin and centered on Holocaust survivor Nelly (Nina Hoss, Petzold’s muse), in “Phoenix” you see more ghosts than you see people. The film opens with Nelly exiting Auschwitz with severe facial injuries, her face wrapped-up like a mummy; forced to undergo reconstructive surgery, she emerges unrecognizable in the procedure’s aftermath.
She and Lene shack up in a small German camp co-occupied by locals and Americans. Nelly immediately, nervously wanders. Her quest, it’s soon made clear, can’t be focused on the future as Lene suggests – not with so much lost. Nelly’s estranged husband, the gentile Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), is still alive, lurking around the camp. While there’s a question as to whether or not he actually turned Nelly in – Lene is convinced he did – Johnny is what kept her spiritually alive. He’s all that she had, and now, he’s all that she has.
When Nelly finds Johnny, he doesn’t recognize her – but he seeks her out with destabilizing rapidity even still. The film subsequently delves into a performative romance, “Vertigo”-style. Johnny recruits “Esther” (Nelly’s pseudonym), not realizing her true identity, to pose as his wife in order to acquire her inheritance. He coaches her on how to be her, from her handwriting to her hairstyle to her very way of walking. As Johnny reconstructs his wife as he knew her, Nelly reclaims herself, free of trauma and isolation.
The set-up here is admittedly contrived, but the film’s middle stretch, mostly confined to Johnny’s small-scale apartment, convinces as fascinating psychological drama. It plays like a piece of theater, rendered with an anticipatory score and a cinematographic distance. It shifts away from “Vertigo,” hewing closer to Truffaut’s performance-centric “The Last Metro.” “Phoenix” manages a confluence of the latter’s intellectual verbosity with an arrestingly twisted atmosphere.
Interludes featuring Nelly and Lene break up the insular central action at Johnny’s apartment. In these brief scenes, Petzold lights Nelly like a silhouette, a faceless figure speaking to her increasingly skeptical and impatient confidante. She speaks of “being jealous of me,” or the version of Nelly whom Johnny so nostalgically longs for. She rebuffs Lene’s assertions of his betrayal. In effect, the physical darkness enveloping Nelly exposes a woman between who she is and who she was. She’s chasing a ghost.
The same goes for Johnny, for no matter how close “Esther” gets, she is always far from Nelly in his eyes. His denial is indicative of a subconscious acknowledgment of truth that he refuses to activate. He instructs Nelly to turn herself into a fantasy as a way to convince, but also because it’s the only way he could imagine her. His construction can only be rooted in that reminder of the past, rather than in a true contention with what she may have become. It’s why he’s chasing the “before” – why he’s drawn to the dead.
“Phoenix” is interpretive in the moral judgment of its characters, as the emotions at play are authentically inexplicable. Hoss’ embodiment of Nelly is both thick and defined, but only because the actress brings to her a stringent, compelling perspective. The character is introduced as beyond vulnerable – a likely shell of her former self. But as Nelly recreates herself for the man with whom she once shared a life, Hoss imbues her with deepening resolve. Her burgeoning strength radiates.
It’s a long tradition in theater and cinema, to act through acting and to give a performance about performance. But here, it’s a window into a sharper concept. Nelly is acting out herself, and as a result, Hoss is essentially playing the past. That characterization is realized within an aesthetic of impassioned melodrama and inevitable menace.
At its core, “Phoenix” is a tautly executed mood piece, swerving messily between genres but kept in total control due to its deliberate artistry. One could call it a ghost story, too; it percolates with tension, sustaining its mood by situating characters’ actions within that sense of ensuing dread.
To close the film, a dolled-up Nelly sings to her husband “Speak Low,” the 1943 Ogden Nash ballad. She’s still concealed in her mask. In the music, the film unabashedly swells. Nelly’s sound, finally discovered, leaves you hypnotized. And the final image thrusts “Phoenix” towards an ending of fatalistic irony.
Yet the song itself is what guides “Phoenix” to its conclusion. The words say it all.
We’re late; Darling we’re late; The curtain descends; Everything ends; Too soon, too soon.
Drawn to the dead, indeed.
“Phoenix” is now playing at Burns Court Cinemas