How far will two people go to preserve their respective illusions? Chilling and tender in equal measure, German director Christian Petzold’s dark romance Phoenix is a study of post-World War II identity in flux, playing as both a preposterous melodrama and a mysterious ghost story that explores performance on both a personal and national level.
Adapted from a novel by Hubert Monteilbet, and conceived and co-written by the late Harun Farocki, Phoenix stars Petzold’s singular muse Nina Hoss as Auschwitz survivor Nelly Lenz, a former nightclub singer who was denounced as a Jewish collaborator and dispatched to the notorious concentration camp. When we first glimpse Nelly, as she’s spirited to freedom through a forest corridor lit as if in a spooky Jacques Tourneur picture, she’s wrapped in grisly face bandages in a distinct, disfigured echo of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, en route to a plastic surgeon and, it seems, a new life.
But what if we’re doomed to tread the same path over and over? Insisting her visage be recreated in its former likeness, Nelly is transformed—or refracted, perhaps, like the camera lens with which she shares her surname—into a kind of simulacrum of her old self. The remodel is enough to convince her duplicitous husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who believes Nelly to be dead and sees an opportunity to use this lookalike to get his hands on her inheritance. As has already been widely noted, the Vertigo parallel is unmistakable, but there’s also a curious hint of Anthony Mann’s underrated Strange Impersonation (released in 1946, the time of Phoenix), in which a disfigured woman assumes the identity of another in a blackmailing scheme. And so the game of delusion begins: Nelly, desperate to cling to her romantic memory, agrees to collaborate with a man who doesn’t—or perhaps refuses to—recognize her.
It’s the sort of scenario that would collapse with the faintest application of logic: Would a man really not recognize his own wife, even by her eyes? But, as Petzold himself has explained, that is the point. Whether through some genuine dislocation of the senses or simply a stubborn refusal to confront reality, both Nelly and Johnny maintain their precarious dance of bluff, and the film, in turn, acquires an increasingly eerie air of unreality. Their characters come to represent a living death, phantoms of a past suspended in a purgatory in which they’ll forever circle each other’s “truth.”
In one of the film’s most sublime sequences, Nelly approaches the cabaret bar that gives Phoenix its title, bathed in neo-noir reds and ripe with seedy glamour. She may as well be stepping through a portal into a collectively imagined past, a place where U.S. soldiers drink and mingle and Weimar-style dancers perform Cole Porter show tunes as though the war had never happened. Reality intrudes mostly in the form of Nelly’s rescuer and caretaker, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a Jewess whose insistence that they both move to the new Israeli state falls on deaf ears as Nelly wades deeper into her—and perhaps, Germany’s—desire for the comfort of the past. Much to Lene’s chagrin, Nelly is so determined to be a part of her nation again that she’s willing to overlook the fact that it had betrayed her.
It’s a fascinating exploration of modes of performance, and another remarkable display of acting by Hoss, who has never been more adept at constructing an entire identity through mere suggestion. As she did in Petzold’s previous film, Barbara (another period piece about a different era of German dissolution), Hoss creates movement and character through her eyes while maintaining a stillness to her face—the most difficult kind of performance—and here it’s pronounced in an even more unnerving manner. She manages to suggest that her skin isn’t her own, that her face—both as a character and as an actress—is itself a mask. Eyes without a face indeed.
Phoenix is a slow burn of unraveling identity, and Petzold’s aversion to big, dramatic strokes—where, say, Rainer Werner Fassbinder might have applied greater melodrama to the same premise—has a quiet grace that underlines the absurdity of the plot, reinforcing the extent of the characters’ commitment to fantasy. If the film at times feels more interesting in theory—for what it evokes, cinematic and otherwise—then all is forgotten once Phoenix arrives at its destination, a bravura moment in which Petzold’s and Hoss’s collaboration yields what might be its finest moment to date. “Love is pure gold,” the actress warbles breathlessly, “and time is a thief.” It’s sentimental, but also fiercely haunting, much like the film itself.