A smoky duet between double-bass and piano at the start of Christian Petzold’s Phoenix promises a dose of film noir. That promise is complicated, if not exactly broken, by what follows. But then, this is a movie all about disguises, reinventions and deceptive appearances.
It begins with a monstrously tantalising scenario. In mid-1940s Germany, a vehicle is halted at night by US soldiers. A figure is whimpering in the passenger seat, their face concealed by blood-soaked bandages. Perhaps we are in for some Eyes Without a Face-style horror, then, rather than noir? Half-wrong again.
This is the former chanteuse Nelly (Nina Hoss), a disfigured concentration camp survivor en route to a surgeon in Berlin. Reconstructing her original face now is out of the question. A loose re-creation can be provided instead. It’s like the doctor says: a new face can be an advantage.
When Nelly later tracks down Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the husband who may or may not have shopped her to the Nazis, he fails to recognise her. He does, though, notice that she bears a passing resemblance to his late wife. That gives him an idea: if she were to pose as Nelly, they could split the “dead” woman’s fortune. Enchanted by his attention, and feeling this may be the only way to reclaim her identity, Nelly plays along. Like a master film-maker, Johnny provides her with a back-story, tells her what colour to dye her hair, which clothes to wear. He even choreographs their eventual public reunion. It’s enough to give a girl Vertigo.
This is Petzold’s sixth collaboration with Hoss (who recently made her English-language debut in A Most Wanted Man). Echoes abound of their previous work together. Like Yella (2007), Phoenix takes place in a kind of purgatory; the infernal scarlet glow spilling from the nightclub which gives the film its title suggests it might even be hell. And in common with the duo’s last picture, the Oscar-nominated Barbara (2012), set during the cold war, it offers accessible commentary on recent German history.
But Phoenix is their most complex work to date, as shown by Hoss’s fine-grained performance. Called upon to play a character playing a character playing a character, her dexterity is astonishing. She is part-actor, part-Russian doll.
It’s a testament to Petzold’s sane head, steady hand and effortless storytelling skill that implausible plot-points are smuggled past us in their own blood-soaked bandages. Would Johnny really fail to spot the truth after spending so long in close proximity to this conveniently placed stranger? Would Nelly honestly persist in finding ways to excuse each of her husband’s crimes against her?
In another film, maybe none of this would wash. Here, the warped narrative functions as an allegory for the stories that people and nations recount to themselves in order to go on surviving. The clincher is the use of music, in particular a performance by Hoss of Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s Speak Low (“Love is a spark, lost in the dark too soon…”). It ties together the film’s themes eloquently but with no comforting sense of resolution.
If you enjoy this blog, you can support it by buying a premium account from the links above.Thanks in advance for your support.