The collaboration of director Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss is one of the pleasurable partnerships of our day and age. It’s exciting that these two have “found” one another, and that they continue to make films together, the latest being Phoenix, one of my favorite films of the year thus far.
The roles Hoss has played for Petzold, in Barbara, Yella, Jerichow (and others, but these are the three I have seen), are different but all utilize her considerable gifts of transformation, complexity, withholding, tension, sometimes unbearable release. She’s a phenom of an actress. She’s also got that old-school movie-star awareness of the camera, and how her body moves through space and what stories that body language can tell. (This is almost a lost art.) It’s not news that many of Petzold’s films are basically unofficial remakes of classic Hollywood films, the most obvious being Jerichow‘s lifting of the plot of The Postman Always Rings Twice. And now, with Phoenix, with its clear Vertigo inspiration. The stories Petzold tells are about Germany, either now, post-Berlin-Wall collapse, and Germany in the past (recent, like Barbara, which takes place in 1980, or Phoenix, which takes place in the direct aftermath of WWII.) Yella is about the post-collapse period, as is Jerichow, with the undeniable legacy of decades of separation, with East Germany undeveloped in comparison to its stronger Western sibling. Integration was not easy and brought up many issues about history, economics, family, identity. This is Petzold’s milieu. (My first review for Rogerebert.com was Petzold’s Barbara, and I’ve also discussed Yella here on my own site.) I highly recommend all of his films.
But Phoenix … Phoenix with its pure appreciation of melodrama (another lost art), and its devastating plot-twists of betrayal and hope, brings Petzold (and his partnership with Hoss) to the next level. This is a great film. Vertigo is everywhere, in this story of a dead woman who is seemingly resurrected, and the man who is haunted by her, his wife’s double, or is it his actual wife? Questions of identity proliferate in increasingly complex ways. These issues also made me think of the wonderful A Woman’s Face, where Joan Crawford in one of her best performances plays a woman with a disfiguring scar across her cheek.
Her self-esteem is nil and she hangs around with a group of corrupt Germans, and she’s a thief and a liar. She’s not a thief BECAUSE she has a scar, but her personality has been formed by outside perception of her, the cringing reaction of others, placing her on the outside of the human community. Once she encounters a kindly plastic surgeon (basically while robbing his house), he tells her he can make that scar go Bye-Bye if she likes. Give her a fresh start with a new face. Once the scar is gone, and Joan Crawford herself emerges, in all her striking beauty, her problems have only begun – because: beauty is skin-deep. And someone who has cringed from human attention for her whole life will not suddenly blossom into a Swan without any set-backs. She is still suspicious and terrified, unused to beauty. And Crawford’s acting is superb because even in the “beautiful” scenes, the character always has an awareness of the scar that was once there. These are melodramatic plot-twists, and melodrama is something today’s modern audiences find too neat, too clear, too “obvious”. Ah, someday I hope our culture will be released from its love affair with realism and its suspicion of the obvious. (I talked about that a little bit in my review of Joe Swanberg’s latest, Digging for Fire.) . Shakespeare didn’t care about realism. Viola and Rosalind dress up as boys, cavort about, sometimes in the presence of those who knew them as girls, and nobody goes, “Huh. You look awfully familiar …” The disguise is accepted because that’s the way you get the good juicy misunderstandings and deception required to make the classic Shakespearean final scenes, of recognition and resolution, so satisfying.
Phoenix, with its reliance on coincidence and suspension-of-disbelief, is a melodrama and a noir, with a great understanding of its themes and what it wants to express. Along with identity, the main question here has to do with guilt. Who feels guilty? Who doesn’t? Even when someone’s lack of guilt is right in front of you, it’s common for humans to forgive, or at least try to excuse it, especially if it’s coming from a loved one. There has to be some other explanation, right? This person I once knew can’t actually have been a monster … can he? Petzold looks at these questions unblinkingly, with a relish in the build-up of tension, the withholding of Nelly (Hoss’ character), her submissive cringing character, her health and face destroyed by the concentration camp, and her disoriented hope that her husband Johnny may still be alive, that a reunion with her German husband is still possible.
Petzold keeps it simple, the period expressed simply in the clothes, the cars, the music, and a huge pile of rubble on a street. You don’t need much more, CGI reconstructions of the entire destroyed city, for example. Petzold’s one pile of rubble is theatrical, evocative.
The action is confined to a couple of blocks, with one foray into the country suburbs of Berlin. Nina Hoss walks through the rubble, unsteady on her feet, lost in a huge man’s raincoat that hangs on her thin shoulders. Her face, destroyed by a gun-shot in the final days of the war, has been re-constructed, and she wants to look exactly as she did before. Or at least as close as possible. She doesn’t want a fresh start. She wants her old life back.
At first with bruises around her eyes, and a swollen nose, she wanders through Berlin, and slowly her face heals, and she emerges, beautifully, as her former self. But are there changes still? We only see her former self in blurry sepia-toned photographs, laughing and free with her husband and German friends, photos she stares at longingly, trying to imagine her way back into that lost world. Does Nelly look the same? How much is there a resemblance? Petzold does not care about the reality, or the plausibility: it is enough to know that the plastic surgeon did a pretty good job, and she is now back to looking like herself. And yet her soul, her spirit, no longer “fits” her appearance. Her soul rattles around inside her, bucking against the walls of her body. Emotion throbs across her surface, coming upon her in uncontrollable waves. She appears to be always on the verge of hyperventilating. She seems so frail that you are amazed her fingers can even hold onto her purse.
Nelly has one friend left, a Jewish woman named Lene (the equally extraordinary Nina Kunzendorf). Lene works with the American-led coalition to help identify the Jewish returnees, of which there were a couple, and the piles of dead scattered in the camps and mass graves throughout Poland. She puts on glasses and stares at piles of corpses through a magnifying glass, cross-checking any tattooed numbers visible, with her piles of lists on her desk. Lene looks to Palestine, though, as her new home. She is resourceful, she already has a lead on an apartment in Haifa, she wants Nelly to come with her once she has healed. Staying in Germany is not an option. They are surrounded by monstrous collaborators, former Nazis, and regular citizens who did nothing to help the Jews. The atmosphere itself stinks, and Lene’s posture and gestures show the superhuman level of endurance of the character, devoted to her work, but desperate … desperate … to get out.
The plot twists and turns, the appearance of Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, a wonderful actor who is also part of Petzold’s regular repertory company), the scenes in the Phoenix night-club filled with American soldiers and regular Germans and German show-girls, with Nelly standing on the side-lines, looking for her husband through the black netting falling over her face from her hat … seep the film in its own atmosphere of emotional intrigue and doomed powerful hope. Nelly is a ghost. As she says to Lene early on, “I no longer exist.”
But maybe reuniting with Johnny will make her exist again. Maybe life is still possible. Johnny stares at her, through her, before doing a double-take. Boy, she is the spitting image of …
What unfolds is so fascinating, so upsetting, so deep with the ultimate questions of our human condition (what IS identity? does having someone look at you and KNOW you mean you exist? Or can we exist in isolation? Who should feel guilty? What does guilt mean and what does it look like? What do our faces mean, the faces we were born with? Is it who we are? If we change our faces, do we change our souls? Can a leopard change its spots? And, taking that further: can Germany change? Can Germany get back to where it was before? – I mean, this is what the film calls up, constantly, with echoing reverb … in every single scene). The set-up is strong and theatrical. As with Vertigo, you must believe. And once you believe, the implications of the film expand, encompassing you, encompassing me, in ways that approach the Mythic. Myths help us understand who we are, why we are, and where our faults may emerge from, the deep wells of collective experience from which we act, behave, think, feel, are.
With the understanding that the piece contains spoilers, I must point you to my friend Farran’s the various cinematic references utilized by Petzold in Phoenix, essential in trying to understand Petzold’s intent, both cinematic and realistic, his understanding of story, his nods to the past, his spins on familiar themes. But again: SPOILERS.
Phoenix is so strong in its particulars that by the time the final scene comes (and it is a doozy) you have been waiting for something like this, hoping for something like this, the tension of Hoss’ performance is so great, with its silent quivering unbearable withholding … and yet the reality of the final moment, as it unfolds, as Hoss and Zehrfeld perform it, what actually happens, in other words, is far more powerful and heart-stopping than anything you or I could dream up. A guy sitting behind us said, even before the screen went to black, “Wow.” And he kept saying it to his friend as the credits rolled, and he was still saying it (among other things) as they picked up their belongings and went to leave the theatre. We stayed to watch the credits, and as the guy exited the theatre, still talking about the movie with his friend, I heard him say, one more time … “Wow …”
It was a beautiful underlying accompaniment to our experience of the final moment, and the film entire.