Assured, tragic, absurd, and heartbreaking, Phoenix is a complex Hitchcockian tale of a woman’s search for answers amidst devastation; a reverse riff on Vertigo; and a spellbinding enigma of identity, deception, and illusion. Through immaculate filmmaking and acting, an implausible, preposterous plot is methodically turned into a gripping and profound allegory.
In the turmoil of post-World War II Europe, Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a German-Jewish nightclub singer and disfigured Holocaust survivor, returns to Berlin after extensive reconstructive surgery to find her former husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), doesn’t recognize her. Standing to inherit a large fortune in a Swiss bank due to her “resemblance” to Nelly, she gets roped into a dangerous game of duplicity and disguise – a scheme to impersonate herself – so that she and Johnny can collect the money, while she attempts to figure out if Johnny is the one who betrayed her to the Nazis.
Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s 1943 ballad “Speak Low” forms the backbone of the narrative in Phoenix and appears several times. The lyrics reflect the state of a woman – and a nation – in limbo, a swooning love song draped in a vaporous question: “We’re late, darling we’re late / The curtain descends, everything ends too soon, too soon.” Ardent and smouldering, the song and the surrounding film are two sides of the same thrilling, seductive coin. It’s Eyes Without a Face meets The Third Man, in colour.
The radiant and riveting Hoss, who also does her own singing, is beguiling beyond words as the unintended doppelgänger. In an early scene, Nelly walks through the shambles of her old life, and catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror. It’s unfamiliar to the point of aversion, the unique oddity of features that are partly her and partly unchartered territory. The millisecond of reckoning is the epitome of great acting. Throughout, Hoss communicates through painstaking gestures like a deer caught in the headlights again and again, transforming into the woman who existed prior to the concentration camps. Her performance is extraordinary, quite simply the best of the year.
Zehrfeld, for his part, is equally good: he’s the other half of the reason that the ludicrous premise almost operates flawlessly. It’s not until halfway through the short 98-minute running time that we begin to understand that it’s not merely inability that keeps Johnny at a distance – he comes close to picking up on the truth – but that he sees only what he wants to see, what he can see. The imagined breakdown if the scales were to fall from his eyes is subconsciously overwhelming, and the alternative of denial allows him to focus on the task at hand, while denying what’s literally right in front of him.
Prior to Phoenix, writer-director Christian Petzold (Yella, Jerichow) had already established a successful auteur relationship with Hoss; with Phoenix, their collaboration rises to a new level. Both Barbara and Phoenix are morbid romance-mysteries that play quietly and run persuasively and build steadily. In Phoenix, Petzold relies on a few set pieces to convey Germany’s destitution and underplays the pulpiness of his premise, instead focusing on its complex psychological and emotional undercurrents and delivering a worthy grandchild to 2006 breakout The Lives of Others.
Ingeniously plotted and downright heartbreaking, Phoenix is loosely based on Hubert Monteilhet’s detective novel Le Retour des cendres. The wide-ranging themes are commingled and harmonized to beautiful effect, and the result is an atmospheric, mystical melodrama, a suave metaphor about searching in vain for the ashes of one’s former self in the aftermath of crippling loss. This coolly intelligent, noirish emotional thriller about treachery and survival – veiled in vibrant, cohesive, sensitively stimulating power – deserves to be seen by the widest arthouse audience possible.
The explosive final scene is as perfect as they come, with a whopper of an ending and perhaps the most haunting fade-out in years. The quivery, delicately calibrated climax is a payoff few can expect, because it leaves so much unresolved and unsaid and yet seems inevitable. What, indeed, is a fitting finale to a film that confronts the ambiguity and senselessness of global conflict? To evoke the shadows of such a time, to explore its implications on one woman’s life and love and future, is maybe as far as even the greatest artists can venture.
In most cases, everything ends too soon. In the exceptional Phoenix, the curtain descends at the perfect time, and the audience is staggered, left to ponder the inconceivable impact of war and basking in the wake of a work of filmmaking art.