Directed by Christian Petzold
Starring Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Uwe Preuss and Michael Maertens
A disfigured concentration-camp survivor, unrecognizable after facial reconstruction surgery, searches ravaged postwar Berlin for the husband who might have betrayed her to the Nazis.
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★★★★½ review by Filipe Furtado on Letterboxd
"We're late, darling, we're late
The curtain descends, everything ends too soon, too soon"
One can't stop history. Come for Vertigo by way of Fassbinder, stays to be complete emotional devasted. Literally physical painful to sit through at times. The best thing about Petzold spare staging, the way his images can both feel charged with history and emotionally naked might have never been put to such good use. Also, Nina Hoss is beyond words (Zehrfeld is pretty great in a tricky role as well);
Literally greatest drop the mic ending ever.
★★★★★ review by Eli Hayes on Letterboxd
Wow, I was in tears for almost the entire last five minutes of this film. And it's funny, because after reading many of the reviews of Phoenix, I was really anticipating an extraordinarily executed ending, something truly special - and my god, that's exactly what I received x 1,000. Beyond the masterful suspense that the film retains throughout the duration of its runtime, it's also strong thematically. There are the obvious themes of war and the Holocaust and the notion of returning from a concentration camp, but the more abstract themes that it presents are equally as fascinating. I enjoy the way Phoenix, much like the recent Under the Skin, approaches the idea of surfaces and what is beneath them, how easy it is for something to seem like it is not, or for an entire world to change merely through the manipulation of a surface or an exterior, something visual and tangible like the flesh. Nina Hoss' is absolutely terrific here and I'm surprised she hasn't received more recognition for her role as Nelly; she carries the film with a relatively small and subtle performance, albeit one that maintains a sense of unease and anxiety that is contagious enough to cast the viewer under the same apprehensive spell.
★★★★½ review by Aaron on Letterboxd
“I am alive and will return soon.”
I was born, and then I died. It was but a moment to the world; the world took no notice. And so I sought to be born once more, that I might be noticed. For, like most people, all I wanted was to be seen, if only for a moment.
To reconstruct my life was not what I wanted. Reconstruction was the wrong word, implying rubble, the piecing together of a sad approximation from the remnants of something better. Not reconstruction—recreation. Something new, but the same. Something fresh and alive, redolent not of the past but of my desire for what the past might have been.
But it was not to be. And so I died again, over and over. Not until I saw the past for what it was could I unmoor myself from its memory. Not until the curtain descended could it rise again, could I be reborn. The moment was wonderful, but it both came and passed too soon.
Christian Petzold’s remarkable postwar melodrama, Phoenix, provides a flood of emotions not usually associated with austere period pieces. Yet by evoking a very specific tragedy suffered by very specific people, Petzold touches on themes of heartbreaking universality: The persistence and unreliability of memory; the lady-or-the-tiger choice of whether to accept the past and move on, pretend it never occurred, or get imprisoned within its haunting grip; the soothing allure of willful blindness; the desire to be loved and the contortions it can produce; the narcotic hangover of guilt; humanity’s endemic failures of communication; the push-pull of identity and obligations to family and to heritage. Almost none among us can claim to have endured what Nelly (Nina Hoss) (or for that matter, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld)) has endured, yet we cannot help but relate to their emotional experiences.
Petzold and co-writer Harun Farocki’s setup is lurid and fantastic: Nelly, a concentration camp survivor in Berlin immediately following World War II, gets reconstructive surgery to repair a gunshot wound, rendering her face new but vaguely similar to its previous likeness. Nelly’s family has been killed in the war, leaving Nelly the heiress of a not-insubstantial amount of money, which her friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), encourages Nelly to put toward the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, leaving Germany far behind. But Nelly cannot let go of the memory of her husband, Johnny; when she finds him, he does not recognize her but spots a resemblance. Believing he can coach Nelly to imitate herself, thereby allowing her to claim her inheritance, Johnny proposes a grift, with the pair splitting the proceeds. Nelly goes along with the scheme in order to be near Johnny, hoping it will yield a reconciliation, while Lene warns that it was Johnny who betrayed Nelly to the Nazis.
It sounds unbelievable, and in many ways that is the point. By foregrounding the absurdity (How could Johnny not recognize Nelly, who is not made to look particularly different than her pre-War pictures? How could Johnny not be thrown by this woman’s immediate ability to imitate Nelly’s handwriting, by her knowledge of his nickname, by her kiss?), Petzold draws Brechtian attention to the artifice underlying all of cinema and to his more pressing themes: How easily one can delude oneself toward self-serving ends, whether accepting Luke Skywalker’s tutelage by a knee-high muppet in the metaphysical powers of a blood-borne virus in service of a grand entertainment experience, or something more destructive. Like Hitchcock in Vertigo, Petzold shifts the audience’s attention where he wants it. What matters is not whether Judy is Madeleine, but why Judy would let herself be sculpted into oblivion and why Scottie would let his obsession curdle into abusive necrophilia. What matters is not whether “Esther” (“There aren’t many Esthers left.”) is Nelly or whether Johnny really sold out his wife to the Gestapo, but why Johnny ignores the signs that “Esther” is Nelly and why Nelly refuses to let go of the past even as it threatens to swallow her whole.
The Vertigo comparison is, of course, obvious—Petzold does not try to obscure his indebtedness to Hitchcock’s masterwork. But Petzold is not merely engaged in a coy remake. Whereas Vertigo was chiefly concerned with Scottie’s point of view, using it to examine the frightening implications of the male gaze and the sexually insecure underpinnings of Midcentury American patriarchal society, Phoenix chiefly adopts Nelly’s point of view to consider both Jewish and German attempts to recover from unfathomable evil and tragedy and to explore the ways in which victims can frequently be their own worst enemies.
Judicious reservation helps to sell Petzold’s tricky gambit. For as hyper-emotional as Phoenix can be, often stating its themes baldly and luxuriating shamelessly in its ridiculous plot points, it is also a film of remarkable subtlety, of quiet, small gestures and details that may not shine through upon first viewing but that deepen the film’s impact immeasurably. Nelly, it is remarked, lived in London before deciding to return to Berlin in 1938—a particularly unwise time for a Jewish woman to make such a move. Nelly’s arms are always covered in the presence of Johnny until the film’s climactic scene, when she pushes her dress sleeves up to reveal her concentration camp tattoo—a moment captured in medium-long shot, without underlining. To complete Johnny’s scheme, Nelly is required to be delivered by train into vaguely hostile territory—replaying a crime already committed against her, though no one comments on the connection. Even the use of Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s “Speak Low” as a leitmotif underscores the tendency toward hesitation and self-censorship, while also subtly recalling “It Had to Be You,” whose lyrics (“I’ve wandered around, finally found somebody who could make be true, could make me be blue, and even be glad just to be sad, thinking of you.”; “With all your faults, I love you still, it had to be you, wonderful you.”) perfectly capture Nelly’s attitude toward Johnny until very late in the proceedings.
Of course, the screenplay and Petzold’s direction only carry things partway. Without the tremendous performances of the three principals, Phoenix would collapse under the weight of its contrivances. Kunzendorf’s Lene, in little screen time, provides a striking counterpoint to Hoss’ Nelly. Serving a similar role as Vertigo’s Midge—a grounded counterpoint to the lurid central relationship—Lene decries the Jewish choice to forgive so quickly as a betrayal nearly as unholy as that of the Europeans among whom her people had settled. But Lene is not always stony—in speaking to the American guards to secure Nelly’s admittance to Berlin and in small smiles and gestures toward her longtime friend, Kunzendorf reveals the full depth of Lene’s character, a situational and emotional intelligence that, combined with her devotion to principle and to Nelly, leads to her heartbreaking ultimate choice.
Zehrfeld, meanwhile, portrays Johnny as a man who may or may not be deeply bad, but who is so deeply immersed in badness that he cannot see anything around him other than darkness. Johnny repeatedly swats away Nelly’s protestations that his plan—involving her reemergence in Parisian dress and heels, hair and makeup carefully manicured—cannot work, for no one will believe that a camp revenant would look that way. Johnny’s insistence that no one will care how Nelly looks or ask about her imprisonment is cynical, but undoubtedly true—Johnny shows no interest, nor does the landlady who hid Nelly, nor do the family and friends who greet her at the train station, nor (mostly) does Nelly herself, insistent as she is on looking as she did pre-trauma, on returning to a past where no bad things had yet happened. Zehrfeld sells Johnny’s bitterness and distrust in humanity, while also retaining a sense of the more charming man Nelly might have fallen in love with. And all the while, Zehrfeld plays close to the vest how much Johnny knows—or, at least, allows himself to know—about Nelly’s true identity, flashing glimmers of recognition, only to bury them quickly under an authoritarian set of instructions outlining (as much for himself as for his pupil) how not like Nelly she is.
But the gravity at the center of Phoenix is Hoss, who gives one of the most remarkable performances in recent memory. Bandaged and then bruised, Nelly moves through the bombed-out rubble of Berlin shell-shocked, part spectral visitor, part newborn foal learning to walk. Nelly is desperate—to look like her old self, to win Johnny’s attention and approval, to make her physical and psychic scars evaporate like a fast-withering summer day. But she is never without an inner core of resolve and strength. The latter point would be easy to forget as Nelly submits herself to Johnny’s callousness, adopting her own blinders that she might overlook the obvious signs of his betrayal until they can no longer be ignored. There is a pathetic quality to Nelly’s stubborn insistence on defying reason and good sense and her own best interests, to her crediting of Johnny with her survival. Yet Hoss always retains a glimmer of Nelly’s courage. No one goes through what Nelly went through without determination and perseverance, and although that determination might get perverted to fruitless ends—like playacting the part of herself for the husband who thought he had signed her death warrant—it is ever-present, like Weill’s haunting melody.
Petzold conveys Nelly’s growth by first viewing her through windows, in fractured mirrors, obliquely. As Nelly approaches the titular nightclub, wandering through a tunnel bathed in red light and unmistakably resembling a birth canal, Petzold suggests that Nelly’s new life has begun—the cabaret holds Johnny, the man for whom she has searched and of whom she has dreamed. Yet Petzold continues to bathe Phoenix and Nelly in shadows, in dusk, in overcast skies. The sounds of rebuilding play on the soundtrack, reminding of the devastation that must be repaired. Nelly practices her handwriting and puts on the accoutrements of her former life, rebuilding an image of herself—but none of it works. The insult of being told you are no good at being yourself cuts deeper than almost any other, an existential denouncement that leaves no room for correction—if you cannot be yourself, who can you be? And yet in important ways Nelly is no longer herself—she has witnessed and experienced things that no person should, things that cannot have helped but change her, and if her denial is more understandable than that of her unconfined countrymen, it is no less unproductive.
It is not until the final scene (whose impact words cannot do justice), when Nelly confronts the reality of Johnny’s betrayal and of the glibness with which her former acquaintances treat her ordeal (the better to salve their guilty consciences), that the sun shines brightly. Greeted by a gaggle of baroque oddballs only too pleased to pretend that the historical nightmare of yesterday never occurred and given by Johnny the declaration of love she has waited so long to hear, Nelly rewards the assembled with a performance—one last revisiting of old times, like Scottie and Judy visiting the mission at San Juan Bautista. Framed as a simple pair of reversed shots—Nelly standing by a piano, Johnny playing it—Petzold shatters his players’ illusions: that encasing oneself in the past like an insect in amber is either achievable or desirable; that running from the past is any better or any more practicable an alternative; that refusing to acknowledge that which is right in front of you serves any ablutionary function. Nelly’s nerves slowly galvanize as Johnny’s crumble in the face of unavoidable realization. Finally, she can be seen, not as an impostor or a ghost, but as herself. Nelly is alive and has returned.
★★★★½ review by SilentDawn on Letterboxd
Phoenix, in a word, is spellbinding. I was shaken awake by its haunting melodies throughout the soundtrack and a splendid evocation of post-war Berlin. However, its fascinating central relationship, performed beautifully by Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld, avoids the typical thriller roles of mystery and intrigue. Comparisons to Hitchcock's Vertigo have been tossed around, but it isn't just to point out the surface similarities.
Phoenix, in a tantalizing way, buries its sexuality far lower than Hitchcock would've ever dared, and the tragic playfulness of the entire story feels rooted in an entire history of Hitchcockian horror. The audience knows everything, but that sudden reaction of shock comes just as swift as an unknown surprise. It is this way of building a story, starting from the outside and traveling into integral elements as the narrative unfolds, that allows for visual language to be distinctly manipulated. Christian Petzold, in a tight 90 minutes, takes the viewer through shady bars, darkened hallways, brightly lit hotel-rooms, and crumbled apartments, and all of it tells a story.
Whether it be a past memory, a reflection, or a unforeseen development; Phoenix tells it with ease. It's a controlling film, one that is highly involved in the thoughts of viewers and (most definitely) the talent in front and behind the camera. A story like this needed to be told, not because it feels like an essential account, but for its predetermined richness. Phoenix, in the best way, feels storyboarded and meticulously planned. The indescribable ending, easily an "all-timer" conclusion, is enough evidence.
★★★★ review by davidehrlich on Letterboxd
what's Petzold is Petznew, again.
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