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Saturday, August 26, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Phoenix (2015)

Director: Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kuzendorf
Country: Germany

At the heart of Phoenix, the sixth collaboration between director Christian Petzold and actress Nina Hoss, is a disagreement over how to cope with trauma. On one side is a character who is determined to leave everything behind except the memories of the people who have been taken, and start over anew. On the other side is a character who just wants to go back to the life she left behind, to put it back together as much as possible, even if it means living amongst those who were complicit in the traumatic event. In the physical and social ruins of post-war Berlin neither can find much comfort in her respective strategy, as the thing they share in common – the need to remember – is at odds with a nation already in the process of trying to forget. A thematically rich and deeply felt film, Phoenix is a work that comes stunningly close to perfection.

Phoenix is a film that’s easy to follow, but somewhat difficult to explain. There are three important characters: Nelly (Hoss), a former cabaret singer who was sent to a concentration camp in 1944; Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), Nelly’s husband who believes that she died in the camp; and Lene (Nina Kuzendorf), Nelly’s friend who has located her and is working to recover the considerable family assets that are now Nelly’s inheritance as a result of the rest of the family having perished. Having discovered that Johnny secretly divorced Nelly in 1944 and believing that he also denounced her, resulting in her arrest, Lene has no intention of informing him that Nelly is actually alive and wants Nelly to leave Germany with her in order to go to Palestine and assist with the creation of a Jewish state where she believes they can live in peace and honor the family and friends who have been slaughtered. But Nelly, who is recovering from reconstructive surgery made necessary as a result of having been shot in the head, cannot bring herself to believe that the man she loves has abandoned her or betrayed her and only wants to be reunited with him. After an experience that has stripped her of everything – her freedom, her family, her dignity, her face, and nearly her life – illusion will be the last thing to go.

When Nelly meets with the surgeon for the first time, he attempts to put an optimistic spin on things, telling her that she could have a whole new face that will allow her to completely reinvent herself. Unspoken is that any attempt to reconstruct her face as it was will only add to her trauma, because the technology simply does not exist to successfully accomplish it. But what Nelly wants is to look as much as possible like she did before so that she may return to who she once was and how she once lived so, working from the photos that Lene has provided, the surgeon does the best that he can. When the bandages come off Nelly is aware that she doesn’t quite look like herself but that doesn't stop her, once she’s sufficiently recovered, from going out and looking for Johnny, whom she finds working at a cabaret in Berlin’s American quarter. She’s devastated when she realizes that he doesn’t recognize her, but, while he doesn’t know her to look at her, he does find himself intrigued by her and the way that, at a glance, she could be said to bear a passing resemblance to his wife. She’s a canvass that he believes he can work with and so he approaches her and makes a proposition, telling her that he believes that he can make her over to resemble his late wife and that if they can pull the deception off and collect Nelly’s inheritance, he’ll split it with her. Instead of telling him the truth, Nelly decides to go along with his plan, hoping that by spending time together she can make him see who she really is and that he will fall in love with her all over again.

Loosely based on the novel “The Return from the Ashes,” Phoenix is a psychological thriller that treads some of the same ground as Vertigo, with a significant portion of time spent with a man telling a woman how to act, how to dress, and how to make herself up, and where the woman in turn struggles over the fact that he’s not seeing her but rather her potential to be what he wants her to be. In this case the woman really is the person the man is trying to turn her into, which makes her experience deep and painful as he keeps telling her that she’s failing at being what is, in fact, herself, criticizing her for not walking the way Nelly walked or doing her hair and makeup the way Nelly did it. For his plan to work, this stranger-as-Nelly has to “return” from the camps, but he doesn’t want her to look like someone who has been through a traumatic experience. He wants her to look just as she always did, without the weight of any mental baggage from her time away, and when she begins to grow frustrated with the implausibly glamorous “reunion” scene he’s trying to stage manage, he cuts her off. As she tries to explain to him that someone returning from the camps wouldn’t look the way he wants her to look or act the way that he wants her to act, when she tries to tell him something about life in the camp under the guise that she needs to have a story to tell because people will ask, he tells her that she’s wrong. No one will ask. No one will want to know. Everyone will just want to move forward without casting a glance back at this chapter in history.

It’s here that Phoenix begins to expand, shifting from an intimate story about a woman’s identity to a more encompassing story about how people engage with painful and shameful history. In this particular setting, the conflict between the German-Jewish experience of horror and almost impossible survival and the non-Jewish German experience of disgrace and the desire to move forward and not linger on that great guilt, becomes the engine that drives the narrative. Many of the film’s non-Jewish German characters want to believe that a woman can walk out of the camps looking like she’s just returned from holiday because it alleviates their own guilt for something that they were, at the very least, silently complicit with even if they were not actively Nazis. They want to move forward, erasing or ignoring as much of the shameful history as possible, a fact made brutally clear to Nelly when Johnny tells her that the final step of her physical transformation will be cutting out a chunk of her forearm so that she can explain to people that she cut out the tattoo, removing the physical marker of her experience. What he seeks is complete erasure of the experience because that is the only way he can reconcile himself to the memory of his wife, whom he may have betrayed. To confront what happened to Nelly directly, to acknowledge what was done to her, would be too much for him so he can only elide it. While Lene laments the fact that survivors are too willing to “forgive” and let everyone go on with their lives, the problem isn’t really the forgiving. It’s the fact that the need to be forgiven isn’t even being acknowledged, let alone requested.

Although it's told at a brisk 98 minutes, Phoenix is a film so rich in detail that new layers reveal themselves on each viewing. For example, the first time I saw the film I took the ending more or less at face value, experiencing it as a powerful scene that allowed its protagonist to have the final word. On rewatch the final scene remains a powerful one that allows its protagonist to have the final word, but it also revealed itself as an even more pointed repudiation of her husband than I had previously realized, thanks to a scene at the beginning of the film between Nelly and Lene. It is, in effect, not just a means for Nelly to make something known to Johnny (who appears to implode as the realization hits him) but also a way of honoring Lene, who worries that everything that has happened has been in vain and that she is the only one who wants to bear the burden of the past by ensuring that it (and the people lost to it) is not forgotten. In the film's final moments, Nelly isn't just declaring herself and cutting the legs out from under Johnny, she's taking up the torch from Lene. She remembers and she's not going to forget.

Rooted in the pulpiness of noir, Phoenix plays around with some of the more lurid elements of the genre during its set up, reaching its peak in that respect at the red-light bathed nightclub which gives the film its name and where dangerous characters and the suggestion of sex converge on a story that already involves plastic surgery, hidden identity, and a money making scheme, but Petzold quickly and deftly steers it into a deep character study and exploration of trauma that is utterly absorbing and leaves one feeling emotionally drained. On screen, Hoss holds down the center of the narrative with a devastating performance that sees Nelly transition from a shell shocked victim shuffling around and uncertain of her place in the world to a woman who has seized her identity for herself and come to terms with the ugly truths which will define her life going forward. In between she is often desperate - desperate for Johnny to recognize her, desperate to absolve him of guilt and later to find a way to excuse him for it, desperate to believe that if she can have him back it will all have been worth it - and the rawness of Hoss' performance leaves you unable to look away. It's a haunting performance and a spellbinding, masterfully made film that will stick with you ever after.

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