Christian Petzold’s noirish 2014 thriller “Phoenix”, which is released today as part of the Criterion Collection, is based, loosely, on a 1961 novel by Hubert Monteilhit. And the film nods at “Dark Passage” (1947), in so much as its protagonist’s face is surgically reconstructed, and it nods even more at “Vertigo” (1958), in so much as it finds a man re-shaping a woman into the woman he once loved even though the woman he’s re-shaping is the woman he once loved. But whatever its influences, “Phoenix” erupts into its own thing, which, as chance would have it, is what “Phoenix” is all about, reclamation of identity, re-possession of one’s self.
As “Phoenix” opens WWII has ended and Nelly (Nina Hoss), a German-Jew, has survived a concentration camp, albeit with a horribly disfigured face, put there essentially by her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) who sold her out lickety split to the SS to save his own hide. Dude’s a rascal, no doubt about it, but Nelly can’t bring herself to believe he would have turned coat, and when a surgeon presents an opportunity to re-construct her face into something else entirely, making her someone else completely, she declines. “I want to look exactly like I used to.”
Her face winds up as close to exactly as it was as is possible, and rather than fleeing the nation, she tracks her beloved Johnny to the Phoenix, a nightclub where they used to work, and where he is now busing tables, eking out a post-war living in rubble-strewn Berlin. It’s like the last chance saloon in some sci-fi western, and Petzold shoots its red sign so that it smolders, the embers of a Nazi nation.
He recognizes her - eh, kind of. He recognizes her as someone who looks an awful like his ex-wife, the one who vanished into the camps and presumably died. But, as he explains, he can get his hands on her inheritance if they can pretend this woman really is his wife (which she is). Is it a stretch to believe that Johnny wouldn't know this woman despite her facial reconstruction really is Nelly? Not necessarily, because the way Petzold films it, and the way Zehrfeld plays it, suggests a subtle knowingness and a simultaneous repression, a refusal to accept what's right in front of them, and emblemizing a desperation for so many Germans to instantly move on in the wake of what has happened, a scrubbing of all things from the past.
And so what comes to transpire, while very straight-forward, effortlessly opens up into so much more, an exploration of identity on both a personal and a national level. And even if you can, as they say, hear the gears of plot grinding, that’s part of the point; if we block out the noise of those gears to so often indulge in movies on the screen, so too do Nelly and Johnny block out the noise of their semi-obvious reality. And what they feel is communicated in the moments where they linger, with a look, with a word, like they know, they sense it, and rather then latch onto it, they are content to let it go.
It’s a film that functions as an allegory, one that is forever teetering on being too insistent, working as nothing more, and yet the characters’ respective situations are all so much a part of their surroundings that the political fuses impeccably with the personal. And while the title is a hit-you-over-the-head metaphor for rising from the ashes, it is no less apropos, and made effective by not forcing the film’s protagonist to carry the weight of the entire nation on her shoulders. No, the political here is personal, and a reminder that everyone in the wake of Hitler-induced rubble had to shake off his sizable vestige.
That shaking off is brought home in the film’s powerful, unforgettable concluding sequence, the details of which I will not reveal, and simply say that it is not German absolution but one woman’s salvation, a persecuted person who has been forced to hold her breath for a decade or more suddenly able to......exhale.