thu 24/09/2020

Phoenix | reviews, news & interviews

Phoenix

Phoenix

A woman who's lost her face rises from the ashes in postwar Germany

Reunited: Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) doesn't know it, but Nelly (Nina Hoss) is his wifeSoda Pictures

Although the shadows of the Holocaust and German guilt hang over Christian Petzold’s sixth outing with his formidable muse Nina Hoss, Phoenix is more concerned with the essence of female identity.

Although the shadows of the Holocaust and German guilt hang over Christian Petzold’s sixth outing with his formidable muse Nina Hoss, Phoenix is more concerned with the essence of female identity. It contextualises in dreadful circumstances and iterates, as no other film has done in recent years, the politically incorrect but no less obvious and appalling notion that a woman’s face is her most valuable real estate, the thin, fragile wall that separates her from emotional destitution.

A woman effaced, this fable-like drama insists, is a woman invalidated – a theme previously explored, in different ways, in A Woman’s Face (1941), The Big Heat (1953), and Eyes Without a Face (1960). Phoenix’s Nelly Lenz (Hoss), a Jewish chanteuse whose face was mutilated by a Nazi bullet at Auschwitz, returns to Berlin after being liberated in 1945. When she seeks passage through an American checkpoint in the harrowing opening sequence, the conscientious guard in charge bellows at her protective escort, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), to let him peer under Nelly’s bandages so he can check who she is. He flinches on seeing what’s there and mutters an apology. The surgeon appointed to restore Nelly’s features says she might be better off with a new visage altogether – perhaps one resembling that of Jewish Hollywood love goddess Hedy Lamarr, a face that would surely launch a thousand Faustian pacts. Instead, Nelly wants to look like she did before so her beloved husband will still desire her. It’s an impossible ask but the surgeon does his best.

The husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), a pianist and Nelly’s onetime accompanist, is missing. Lene, a clerk in the office of Jewish records, discovers he divorced Nelly on the eve of her deportation. She doesn’t disclose this to Nelly but tells her he's dead, partly because she suspects him of having betrayed Nelly to the Gestapo, partly because she has her own agenda. Lene dreams of emigrating to Palestine because, unlike some Jews, she cannot forgive the Germans or live among them again. Her mannish demeanour reveals – perhaps too easily – why she wants Nelly to come with her. Kunzendorf (pictured above in red) is deeply affecting in one of life’s most thankless roles: the silent adorer of someone in love with someone else.

The thought of reuniting with Johnny having sustained her in captivity, Nelly is determined to find him alive. Prowling the city’s rubble canyons in scenes of oneiric intensity, she virtually dreams him into existence working as a potman in an American Sector nightclub named Phoenix – as sleazy a film noir dive as ever existed, though its the Weimar era's special brand of decadence that's conjured by the frowsy Dietrich manquées who perform there. Since the hesitant newcomer vaguely reminds Johnny of his ex-wife, whom he assumes dead, he enlists her to impersonate her (the woman she actually is) in a fraudulent scheme to embezzle her Swiss-held inheritance money. Not knowing, of course, that his partner-in-crime had recently returned disfigured from Auschwitz, Johnny meticulously coaches her to take the lead part in a sick charade that will be witnessed by their old friends and his co-conspirators – namely, the glorious reentry from hell of his wife, wearing a glamorous red dress and made up to the nines. Nelly protests that no concentration camp survivor took the train back from Poland looking like a movie star.

Besotted with Johnny, no matter that his raffish charm has drained away, Nelly colludes in his plan so she can be near him, forlornly hoping he’ll fall in love with her all over again. His incuriosity about her is bad enough, but worse is her realisation that, with her face replaced, none of her other attributes, physical or intellectual, register with him. Her hair, her body, her posture, her mannerisms, her conversation, the timbre of her voice and her diction, her force field, and her smell are nothing he knows or wants to know. He is perplexed by her ability to replicate perfectly his wife’s handwriting, annoyed when he thinks she is trying to “be” Nelly for him, but neither moved nor aroused. Her continuing in the game borders on the masochistic. (Pictured below: Zehrfeld and Hoss.)

Based by Petzold and the late Harun Farocki on a 1961 novel by Hubert Monteilhet that was previously filmed in 1965, Phoenix is a meditation on the female perspective in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The screening I attended was part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s “The Vertigo Effect,” a season of films that anticipated or were influenced by that 1958 masterpiece. Hitch's neurotic protagonist, ex-detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), it's worth recalling, chances on Judy Barton (Kim Novak), the down-market double of the mysterious upper-class woman, Madeleine, he’d earlier been tricked into following, had rescued and fallen for, and whose death plunge he wrongly believed he’d witnessed. She’d never really existed. The wife-killing and cover-up behind this playacting is barely more sinister, given the homicidal glut in Hitchcock’s films, than Scottie’s morbidly fetishistic makeover of Judy as Madeleine, whom she’d fabricated in the first place – and whose last hours he also seeks to re-create to help banish his guilt as an implicated party in her demise. Judy, in love with Scottie, miserably goes along with this, as Nelly pathetically goes along with Johnny’s odious post-Holocaust simulacrum.

The main similarity between Phoenix and Vertigo is that each of these obsessively driven men (a “director” who demands his “leading lady” act out a perverse fantasy) is unaware that he’s asking his female collaborator to pretend to be herself – a kind of walking palimpsest. The main difference between them is that whereas “Madeleine” is Scottie’s feminine ideal, Johnny evinces no equivalent retrospective romantic (or, let's be honest, sexual) passion for the “dead” Nelly, a humiliation it’s hard to watch the very much alive Nelly endure. Her tragic revelation is that even with her beautiful face intact, she didn’t mean what she thought she meant to him, or so it seems. Hoss’s emotional range amplifies the power of this story of a woman confronting her worst fears and discarding her illusions. If Nelly’s to go on, she must rise not through the man, but despite him. Presumably Petzold saw in that a lesson for postwar Germany, too.

No concentration camp survivor took the train back from Poland looking like a movie star

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Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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