BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: Adapted from Hubert Monteilhet’s novel ‘Return from the Ashes,’ director Christian Petzold’s Phoenix has the air of a revisionist war film with a science-fiction twist. Granted, it has some liberties in the supposed advancement of medical science for the 1940s, featuring a surgery that’s not even really possible today, but with its stark approach to its pulpy atmosphere, it’s easy to buy into anything it wants to do because of its compelling narrative.
The film follows Nelly, played by Nina Hoss, a Jewish concentration camp survivor and former nightclub singer who’s suffered severe disfigurement. She undergoes facial reconstruction, nearly looking like her old self, and tries to find peace with her lost previous identity. She heads to post-war Berlin to locate her estranged husband and partner in their former activism, played by Ronald Zehrfeld, but upon doing so he recruits her to help him on a scam to claim his wife’s inheritance. As she looks almost alike, he moulds her to act like his wife did and have her ‘return’ and scoop up the money.
There’s another liberty you have to buy in order to go along with Phoenix. That being, despite all the hints, at no point does her husband Johnny recognize Nelly until the inevitable moment. This redressing of a former lover plotline is quite reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but with Johnny’s indifference and greed it’s a different spin, and we observe Nelly’s submissive re-judgment of him. It thrives on the dramatic irony of when Johnny thinks that she isn’t acting enough like his wife. It’s fascinating to watch her rediscover herself, and a delight when she impresses him with how accurate she can be at times. All these minor contrivances work thematically to build a picture of a search for identity and heartbreaking betrayal. It’s a refreshing perspective on a revision of a past life and then healing from it.
Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss’s collaborations have been steadily building momentum as Phoenix, their 4th film together, gains buzz on the festival circuit. Clearly it is a beneficial partnership. Through her glassy eyed look nearly in tears and her anxious movements, Hoss faultlessly marries fragility with a burning motivation to disquiet her soul. She may be easily manipulated due to her weakened psychological and physical state, but she always has intentions that she’s slowly building up to. Before taking board with her husband, she’s assisted by Lene, played by Nina Kunzendorf, a fellow Jewish activist. Her performance is steely and enigmatic, and I can’t help but want to know more about her and her motivations so it’s a shame the film doesn’t quite deliver in that regard.
Often times the film holds back on payoff, although it’s often executed in thoughtful manners. Most strikingly is in the film’s conclusion. In a way, it almost feels as though it’s missing an entire third act. Perhaps the director felt it did not need an epilogue, but I was left hungry to explore the consequences. Ross does admit that they didn’t know how to end it. However, it is a remarkable display of restraint to leave it as open as it did and frankly it works with the slight nature of the film beforehand. But on the other hand it feels like Petzold simply ran out of ideas and is idly leaving the viewer to fill in the rest. The film constantly feels like it’s building to something, and the ending changes everything in hindsight, but perhaps it works in the film’s favour, to draw a comparison to The Sopranos’ infamous final moment as it leaves you cold.
Despite the film’s small scale, with most of it taking place in Johnny’s small apartment, it does show off lush production design. Postwar rubble has never felt quite a mess like this since Saving Private Ryan. The film does try to take on a grander scale, implying that the formation of Israel is like Nelly and reborn from the ashes, but it works best when it’s focused on the core relationship. The saturated but vivid cinematography contributes to its beguiling pulp tone and it holds a lot of tension in the air, complimenting the weight of the performances. It’s a fascinating concept and well-executed script, and my only reservations with Phoenix come with its choice of the resolutions for its various plot threads. But these are up for debate, and they’re ones worth engaging in for such an otherwise stellar and quietly affecting film.