Directed by Christian Petzold
Opens July 24
One of the major themes in the work of German director Christian Petzold (Barbara, Yella) is personal repression, and subsequent awareness, of the disturbing historical past. Addressing regeneration through intense suffering with more than just its title, Phoenix marks not only an apotheosis of Petzold’s career-long examination of memory in relation to national cataclysm, but also a critique of the mind-easing revisionism offered by mainstream depictions of genocidal oppression, whether serious (Schindler’s List) or facetious (Django Unchained).
Phoenix stars frequent Petzold lead Nina Hoss as Nelly Lenz, a German death camp survivor who returns to post-WWII Berlin following facial reconstruction surgery. Searching for Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), her husband and musical partner, Nelly is warned against a reunion by friend and burgeoning Zionist Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) on the grounds that the non-Jewish opportunist sold her out to the Nazis. But when they finally meet, Johnny fails to recognize Nelly (now named Esther Blum) and enlists her in a scheme that has her impersonating her former self to claim a family inheritance. Out of love Nelly goes along with the hoax before disillusionment sets in.
A couple of problems may have significantly undermined this story: in the first place it’s preposterous (wouldn’t Johnny at least recognize Nelly’s voice?), but more importantly it gives little credit to the protagonist, whose self-delusion concerning her husband’s betrayal—until the emergence of irrefutable evidence—appears almost childishly naïve. Thankfully Petzold offsets the inherent flaws of the screenplay (based on Hubert Monteilhet’s novel The Return of Ashes and co-written by the late, great Harun Farocki) by cinematically rendering it in hushed, somber tones that suggest a haunting unreality. Though it never slips into out-and-out hallucination, the atmosphere of Phoenix nonetheless recalls Vertigo rather than Judgment at Nuremberg, with Hans Fromm’s silhouette-painting cinematography and Stefan Will’s low-key jazz score evoking the psychological and metaphorical terrain of noir.
Indeed, Petzold seems unconcerned with the “realistic” conventions of mainstream Holocaust dramas, wisely circumventing a pat revenge narrative to thoroughly explore the persistent trauma of the Shoah and the even more traumatic attempts to block it from consciousness. In this regard Hoss and Zehrfeld’s performances are vital in making sense of the world of Phoenix, where self-deception works hand-in-hand with—and often directly fosters—deception. As Nelly/Esther, Hoss walks and talks like someone relearning to act human—and then realizing that those who never lost such knowledge behave just as artificially. The result is an implicit denunciation of minorities’ misidentification with their persecutors. Meanwhile, as Johnny (renamed Johannes), Zehrfeld justifies his plan for building a prosperous new life on lies and collusion by pointing to the collective amnesia of German society. (“Then tell it, if anyone asks,” he commands Esther when she relates a story she “read” about the concentration camps. “But I assure you no one will.”) The film’s climax hinges on subtle changes in Johnny’s expression during the slow, painful resurrection of knowledge and feelings long thought dead: the effect is devastating without a hint of manipulation, the most powerful realism there is.