The war is over, but the past is still there for her and others. Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix”, a quiet but compelling period drama revolving around disguise and manipulation with a touch of film noir, is reticent about the dark period its heroine and others went through, but their inconvenient past becomes more palpable as we observe their gloomy post-war world barely recovering from it. Still confused and traumatized inside her new appearance, its damaged heroine cannot help but be drawn to what may be a good chance to restore not only who she was but also a precious relationship in her past, but can she really forget whatever she endured during that terrible time? And can she possibly overlook that she might have been betrayed by someone she loved and trusted?
In the opening scene, we see two women in their car, who have just been stopped by American soldiers at a checkpoint. When one of the American soldiers notices that one of these two women is heavily bandaged on her head, he understandably becomes suspicious, so he demands her to unbind her bandage despite her companion’s protest. The camera does not show her bare face directly, but the soldier’s horrified face is more than enough for us to guess how terrible she looks in her injured state.
It is not long after the World War II was over, and Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) is being taken to Berlin by her friend Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf) mainly for her treatment and recovery. After arrested in late 1944, she was sent to a concentration camp, but she managed to survive and then escaped from the concentration camp later, and it is implied that she sustained her serious facial injury during her escape. When she is examined by a skillful plastic surgeon shortly after she and Lene arrive in Berlin, the doctor says that he cannot restore her original face but can construct a new face for her instead, though it may take some time for her to get used to her new appearance which will not be wholly different from the former one but will still look different to her and others.
After the successful reconstruction surgery on her face, Nelly starts adjusting herself to her new face and environment with Lene’s help. They have a nice apartment as their temporary staying place, and they also hire a resourceful housekeeper who can always prepare decent meals for them in spite of the poor supply of many cooking ingredients in post-war Berlin. Lene, who works at the agency for retrieving the Jewish survivors’ confiscated assets, is planning to get a place in Palestine for the new beginning for her and Nelly, but Nelly is not so sure about whether she really wants that or not.
Meanwhile, Nelly searches for her pianist husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, who appeared along with Hoss in Petzold’s previous work “Barbara” (2012)). Before their life was disrupted during the war, she was a singer who worked with her husband, and he helped her hiding from the SS for a while, but it seems that he was directly responsible for her arrest. According to an official document on him, Johnny was arrested and then released shortly before she was arrested, and that clearly suggests his betrayal.
She eventually finds her Johnny, but he no longer works as a pianist. While working as a mere employee at a seedy nightclub named Phoenix, he now prefers to be called Johannes instead of Johnny, and he does not even recognize his wife. To him, Nelly in her new appearance is merely a woman who happens to closely resemble his wife, and he believes she was dead after being sent to the concentration camp.
It turns out that he has a scheme in which she may be useful. Nelly is actually the sole recipient of a considerable amount of family fortune because all of her Jewish family members died during the war, and Johannes wants her to disguise herself as Nelly for getting the money for himself. While not revealing her true identity, Nelly becomes her husband’s willing accomplice mainly because she still has feelings for him despite the possibility of his betrayal. She begins to live with him at his shabby residence, and he coaches her with various details on how she is supposed to look and behave as “Nelly”.
This looks like an easy job for Nelly at first, but she soon realizes how much she is changed from her former self, and there is a dark, twisted irony reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958) in her struggle to satisfy her husband. Driven by each own motive, Johannes and Nelly try to restore the image of a woman gone from their life, and it is simultaneously unnerving and poignant to watch them preparing and rehearsing for the illusion they both desire for different reasons. While never imaging that the woman to be used by him is actually his wife, Johannes becomes uncomfortable as shaping her into his supposedly dead wife step by step for his deceitful plan. Although it was pretty awkward during her first clumsy trials of playing herself, Nelly gradually becomes more comfortable and confident in her ‘performance’, like an actress getting accustomed to her role. She is supposed to leave Johannes once they succeed with their deception, but she might be able to live with him as “Nelly”, if not herself.
As shown from “Barbara” (2012), the director/writer Christian Petzold is very good at establishing a quiet but nervous mood to engage and intrigue us, and “Phoenix” is also equipped with impressive visual touches while never breaking its calm, reserved tone. The sights of ruined buildings and barren streets evoke the glum, down-trodden atmosphere hanging around post-war Berlin and its moody inhabitants, and the cinematography by Hans Fromm further accentuates it through the effective use of high contrast in the night scenes. Usually suffused with dark red lights during its opening hours, the Phoenix club is literally drenched in that pulpy ambience of film noir, and we even get a gaudy German rendition of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” at one point.
With her expressive face and subtle body languages, Nina Hoss masterfully depicts each nervous step her confused character takes along the story, and she is especially terrific when Nelly indirectly reveals herself during her conversation with Johannes on how they should make her look more authentic as “Nelly”. She virtually tells him what she experienced during that despairing period of hers, but she disguises it as a part of her preparation for playing “Nelly”, and Hoss’ superb performance deftly tiptoes on a thin line between deception and sincerity during that moment.
It is also interesting to watch how Hoss and her co-star Ronald Zehrfeld interact with each other in a mode completely different from what we saw from their previous performances in “Barbara”, where Hoss played a stigmatized East German doctor who will not let others including Zehrfeld’s sympathetic character come too close to her for good reasons. In case of “Phoenix”, Hoss is the one who tries to come closer to the other, and many scenes in “Phoenix” depend solely on the dynamics generated between the performances by Hoss and Zehrfeld, who always click together well with their shifty chemistry on the screen.
As another crucial part of the story, Nina Kunzendorf is equally good in her supporting performance. Lene looks determined to detach herself from the past through her possible future in Palestine, but she eventually turns out to be haunted by the past as much as her friend and others, and there is a sad scene where she reveals her own pain through her personal letter to Nelly, which is accompanied with one important piece of information for her friend.
While a certain degree of patience is required for us to get absorbed into the story due to its dry, restrained storytelling, “Phoenix” eventually strikes us with the haunting finale to reflect on for a long time after it is over. After slowly and carefully building its narrative momentum during most of its running time, the movie finally arrives at the point where something seems to be bound to happen, and you will be captivated by what Petzold, Hoss, and Zehrfeld present on the screen. As the characters in this undeniably powerful scene will come to learn, truth always finds a way to get itself revealed in the end, no matter how much they let themselves blind and silent to it.