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How do we deal with unfathomable betrayal? How can we get past the kinds of things that change the course of a life we so desperately wish to have back? These are just two of the issues that brilliant “Phoenix” by Christian Petzold, one of the most impressive directors now at work, tackles. Petzold’s picture has overtones of “Vertigo” and a profoundly assured visual language, making it resonant long after its flawless conclusion. A meditation on how a whole nation responds to calamities like war, this is a compelling work that never loses sight of its human story. It is absolutely uncommon to find a movie that is this rewarding on every level, one that can be appreciated for its story alone while simultaneously offering fodder for hours of conversation on its ideas.
The first image in “Phoenix” is a dark profile of a face. It is Lene’s (Nina Kunzendorf) face, a woman who is transporting a wounded and bloody passenger back to Berlin. Despite having a severely disfigured face, she was able to escape a concentration camp. After a brief interaction at a checkpoint, the two continue driving, and before the title appears, headlights begin to fill the screen. This tale will undoubtedly be one of darkness to light, even if that brightness occasionally causes blindness.
The passenger is revealed to be Nelly Lenz, a German-Jewish nightclub singer who had a good life, according to images and conversations with friend Lene (Petzold’s associate Nina Hoss). She was wed to Johnny, a dashing and self-assured man (another Petzold regular, Ronald Zehrfeld). The SS brought Johnny in for questioning on October 4th. He was eventually set free two days later, and Nelly was taken to a concentration camp. Did Johnny conceal the Jewish heritage of his wife? Clearly. Nelly, however, does not accept it. She yearns for her former existence. And that include denying the fact that her spouse was and continues to be a selfish monster. She tells her plastic surgeon, “I want to appear exactly like I used to,” after he informs her that she can start a new life and look like anyone. She is obstinately and vehemently concealing what has occurred to her.
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In spite of Lene’s misgivings, Nelly goes back to Berlin in search of Johnny. She is a broken woman in a ruinous city. She informs Lene, “I don’t exist anymore.” The connection, the friends she now only sees in photographs, even the city she formerly called home—all of them are no longer there. Phoenix, the club that resembles an oasis amid ruins, is where she feels some measure of familiarity. It resembles a fantasy that individuals discover among the ruins of a bombed-out city. She comes across Johnny there. One night, he seizes her. He’s got an idea. Since there is no proof that his wife is dead, he wants someone to pose as her in order to claim her money. You must portray my wife. And as Johnny starts to transform this lady he thinks is a stranger into the wife he betrayed and, in doing so, revives Nelly, the similarities between “Phoenix” and “Vertigo” become quite clear.
Every decision in “Phoenix” has been meticulously thought out, yet never in a way that compromises the piece’s authenticity. The film avoids drawing attention to its style by using a rich cinematic language. Petzold makes subtle choices in everything from how he frames his actors’ expressive faces to the song selection for a pivotal club scene to the dialogue that takes place on a train track during the film’s climactic scene, which is profoundly symbolic of looking in one direction toward the past and the other toward the future (as well as carrying historical weight with the trains that took people like Nelly to concentration camps). Petzold plays so gently with the visual manifestation of his themes—dark and light, rising from the ashes, the overhead lighting or neon red of the Phoenix sign—that he doesn’t bring attention to them but only allows them to be the background to his human drama.
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Nina Hoss takes center stage in this human drama. Watch the scenario where, after seeing Johnny go by for the first time, she removes her hat in a bar. Even though she is aware of what he has done, she calls his name with joy. She has called that name so many times before. He ignores her. Or perhaps he sees her but doesn’t recognize her. She is unable to attend. His mind isn’t even capable of comprehending the notion that she might be. In terror, Hoss covers her mouth with her hand. She is currently hurt by Johnny’s dismissal rather than his betrayal. This living reminder of a time when everything made sense can no longer see her, so when he offers her the option to “become Nelly” once more, she seizes the opportunity. Johnny once begs Nelly to assist him fabricate a tale about what he thinks is her exaggerated account of her stay in a concentration camp. Naturally, the tale Nelly begins to tell is accurate. Hoss is unable to speak clearly and holds her hands to her face. Johnny feels the same discomfort. The truth they’re both rejecting and the fiction he thinks he’s fabricating are beginning to converge. In this moment, as well as the rest of the movie, Hoss is absolutely outstanding.
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Fair enough, Zehrfeld is also quite talented. Watch a scene where he returns home to discover Nelly dressed appropriately, using makeup, and appearing more like Nelly from the past. Is the expression on his face one of recognition? Does he realize what he has done? No, it’s impossible. She can’t be alive, and he can’t be that person. She serves as a ghostly reminder of what he did and what the world lost during World War II.
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If we’re fortunate, we occasionally encounter a product as comprehensive as “Phoenix.” Every so often, we get character studies with performances as strong as Hoss and Zehrfeld’s, or we get auteur-driven movies with intricate visual choices and a focus on style. It’s unusual to witness a movie that strikes such a delicate balance between maintaining focus on the tale of a pianist and nightclub singer in 1945 Berlin while also making a commentary on how difficult it is for people to accept war and betrayal. Because “Phoenix” succeeds on so many levels, it is the kind of work that may be analyzed and admired for a very long time. And I anticipate it will.