Phoenix

December 4, 2015
Nina Hoss in 'Phoenix' (2014)
Nina Hoss in 'Phoenix' (2014)

While Ron Howard gives us adventure on the high seas, Christian Petzold takes us to a seedy, broken-down Germany in the wake of the Second World War. Phoenix is an advance on Petzold’s previous feature, Barbara (2012), which was set in East Germany during the 1980s. Both movies share the same female and male leads, and are co-scripted by Petzold and legendary radical filmmaker, Harun Farocki. The difference is that Barbara felt cautious and contrived, while Phoenix is a taut, impressive piece of story-telling.

Nina Hoss plays Nelly, a Jewish singer who has survived Auschwitz, although with her face horribly damaged. The good bad news is that the rest of her family has perished, and she has become a wealthy woman – wealthy enough to afford a new face through plastic surgery.

The doctor asks the mummified Nelly what sort of face she would like. Zarah Leander is apparently a popular choice, but Nelly replies that she only wants to look like she did before. To the best of his ability this is what the doctor provides, but there are always slight differences.

The scenes in the hospital, as Nelly plays a kind of tag game with another woman with a bandaged face, introduces the theme of the Doppelgänger or double. The classic screen treatment is Teshigahara’s The Face of Another (1966), in which a scientist changes his features in the laboratory and sets out to seduce his own wife. Dostoevsky’s novella, The Double, was recently made into a mediocre film by Richard Ayoade.

Nelly is cared for by her friend, Lena (Nina Kunzendorf) who works for the Red Cross. She wants them both to start a new life in Tel Aviv, but Nelly is one of many German Jews who hardly thought of herself as Jewish before the rise of the Nazis. Her only desire is to find her husband, Jonny. The thought of being reunited with him has sustained her through her ordeal in the camp, and seeing him again has become an obsession.

Lene is less enthusiastic. She doesn’t care for Jonny, finally admitting that he is believed to have betrayed Nelly to the authorities. This doesn’t dampen Nelly’s desire to find him, if only to find out the truth from his own lips. The writing and acting is so good that this never seems anything but psychologically plausible.

When Nelly finally locates Jonny (Ronald Zehrfeld) he doesn’t recognise her, but is quick to note her resemblance to his ‘dead’ wife. Acting as Pygmalion, he plans to turn this stranger into the spitting image of Nelly, allowing them to claim her inheritance.

Nelly plays along, learning to copy her own handwriting and mannerisms, dyeing her hair back to its pre-war shade. Jonny thinks he is masterminding this transformation, but it is Nelly acting the ingenue, asking him to tell her about his wife. The movie that springs most readily to mind is Hitchcock’s Vertigo, where Jimmy Stewart seeks to transform Kim Novak into the image of his dead lover.

The story becomes progressively more tense and suspenseful, as Nelly tries to discover the truth about Jonny’s alleged betrayal. At the same time she seems so vulnerable that she is always on the edge of revealing her true identity. All it would take would be the slightest hint of recognition from Jonny, and she would give up the masquerade. Yet he keeps his distance, not allowing the relationship to become an intimate one.

Jonny is conscious that the resemblance seems almost too good to be true, but he cannot allow himself to imagine that it is Nelly standing in front of him. This may be because of his overwhelming desire to get his hands on the family fortune, or it may be because of a bad conscience. Petzold gives us only the same information that Nelly uncovers. Her discoveries are not limited to Jonny, but an entire society seeking to deny the events of the recent past. She has become a living spectre, haunting those places where she once felt at home.

Phoenix
Directed by Christian Petzold
Written by Christian Petzold & Harun Farocki, after a novel by Hubert Monteilhet
Starring Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Michael Maertens
Germany/Poland, rated M, 98 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 5th December, 2015.