Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Phoenix Movie Review
There’s a current movement in German cinema. I’m not sure if it’s acquired a catchy name yet. “The Berlin School” is the closest I can find, but that’s not descriptive in the way that “film noir, “French New Wave,” or “Italian neo-realism” were. From my own observations it’s something like neo-German historical realism. But that’s a little clunky. At any rate, the movies, which tend to focus on post-war Germany or Communist Bloc East Germany, have been making their way stateside, illuminating the ways in which a new generation of German filmmakers and their audiences are responding to the important historical markers that shaped Gemany and its people today.
Phoenix is Christian Petzold’s second film in this mold following Barbara. Both are co-written by Harun Farocki and are meticulously paced and star Nina Hoss as a woman put-upon and broken by her historical surroundings. In Barbara she played a doctor from East Berlin who’s been exiled to a village in the north where she can’t even trust that her colleagues are not spies. Phoenix, loosely adapted from a French novel by Hubert Montheilhet, digs deeper and more tremulously into Germany’s past, going back to the immediate post-war period. Germans are still literally picking up the pieces from destruction and are not even close to coming to grips with genocide, crimes against humanity, and the fact that they are, each and every one of them, complicit in Nazi atrocities. Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, an Auschwitz survivor who has had facial reconstruction following a gunshot wound. Her old friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), also Jewish, takes her in to her Berlin apartment while plotting to move to Palestine to start anew, where many European Jews are returning to move beyond the horrors they can no longer face.
Nelly returns in what can only be described as a state of total numbness, a shock so deep, and so severe that it causes her to shuffle around like an animal that has endured chronic abuse. Hoss has wide expressive eyes that dart around nervously, awaiting something awful. She conveys everything she needs to about her character through physical means. Her dialogue is limited. Prior to the war, Nelly was a cabaret singer, was married, and had a social circle of mostly non-Jews. She learns that her friends are either dead or were Nazi collaborators. She has no one left but Lene. Rebirth is all that’s left. Phoenix illustrates the impossibility of Jews returning to any meaningful existence in Germany.
Her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), is one of the few connections she still has to her old life. There is some suggestion that Johnny turned her in, but she hasn’t stopped loving him. When she finally finds him, he doesn’t recognize her for the surgery, but he thinks she’s a pretty good doppelgänger for the woman he believes to have perished. He wants to use Nelly to make her over so that he can claim her estate. So with shades of Hitchcock and very deliberate inspiration from Vertigo, Johnny remakes the new Nelly as the old Nelly, never becoming the wiser.
Logical scrutiny would suggest she would never go along with the scheme, that she would tell Johnny who she is and tell him to take a hike. But our reference points for creating logical metrics don’t include how one thinks and behaves after the entire population of what they believed was their homeland, including best friends and spouses, turned against them. When all you want is a return to normalcy, to feel the warmth and love of your husband, to dine and converse with friends as you used to, who’s to say what lengths you wouldn’t go to in order to achieve it. Petzold is a storyteller with a remarkable understanding of human behavior, psychology, and motivation. His confidence in his characters’ choices is so high he doesn’t need to pander to them or to us.
The point of Phoenix, what Petzold expertly shows here through his muse Hoss, is that there was no way back. The Jews of Europe lost their essential identity in the Holocaust, even secular and “assimilated” Jews like Nelly. They lost everything they believed about who they were, who cared for them, and what they falsely believed was their secure place in society. Phoenix is a film of reckoning with the past. Germany and its people lost a lot as well, though it’s harder to sympathize with it, we still recognize that there was no way back. The only way was forward, to an era of rebuilding and atoning and humility.