In what’s obviously a reworking of Alfred Hitchcock’s incomparable Vertigo, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix is a lurid, often bleak tale of identity reconstruction and the danger that comes with putting stock in the past. Petzold’s frequent collaborator, Nina Hoss, once more stuns audiences with her aptitude for character infiltration. In Phoenix, she plays the deeply scarred yet stubborn Nelly Lenz, a Holocaust concentration camp survivor who foolishly clings onto love and nostalgia like they’re two life preservers keeping her afloat in a post-WWII landscape. Instead of following through with the classic femme fatale trope of empowerment that so often categorizes film noir, Nelly is more comfortable having a sinister male figure pull her strings along and bend her to his will. Context is, however, paramount to understanding the seemingly deranged series of choices our protagonist makes throughout the film. Petzold’s Phoenix struggles with plausibility for much of its ride, a weakness that is mostly overshadowed by compelling female performances and the interplay between two scheming individuals who both want vastly different outcomes.
Petzold’s noir thriller starts off with the brutal unmasking and subsequent facial reconstruction of Nelly, who is escorted to a hospital in Berlin by her lawyer and confidante Lene (the sublime Nina Kunzedorf in a brief yet astounding role). Lene attempts to console Nelly through her difficult transition but to no avail. Nelly views herself as unrecognizable and has zero desire to forge a new existence without ties to her former life. Lene, who perhaps harbors feelings deeper than friendship and dreams of a future with Lene in Palestine (land for the Jewish Holocaust survivors that the United Nations will allow them to reclaim), is vexed when she learns Nelly’s true intent. Nelly wishes to reunite with her traitorous husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), and continue their marriage as though her imprisonment never occurred. Going so far as to renounce affiliation with her Jewish heritage, Nelly bolts from her living quarters in American-occupied Berlin in search of her opportunistic husband.
The events that follow, with Nelly witnessing a shocking act of rape and the casual misogyny of the U.S. troops patrolling the streets, highlight the fraught reality of a war-torn country still without a shred of humanity despite “defeating evil.” Dark alleys and malevolent shadows infringe upon the fragility of Nelly as she walks towards Johnny’s rumored whereabouts: “Phoenix,” the local nightclub whose name is obnoxiously on-the-nose given both the film’s title and Nelly’s presumed arc. Thankfully (or not), the jazz nightclub isn’t much of a centerpiece to the story, as Johnny is quickly discovered and then forces Nelly back to his lowly apartment with an insidious plan in mind.
The remainder of the film will either have you frustrated by Nelly’s naivety or awed by her idealism in spite of the most soul-crushing hardships a human could ever endure. Johnny, completely unaware that the Nelly in front of him (who calls herself Esther) is in fact his wife he betrayed to the Nazis after being interrogated, devises a plan to use the “new” Nelly for financial gain. Forcing her to mimic Nelly’s dress code, handwriting, hairstyle, mannerisms and overall appearance — which, as you can imagine, isn’t going to be difficult whatsoever — Johnny plans to have Esther pose as his dead wife in order to acquire her inheritance. Does this dastardly scheme phase Nelly at all or make her question his sincere devotion to his wife? Not whatsoever. Nelly makes every excuse in the book for Johnny, painting him in an angelic light that he doesn’t deserve in a thousand lifetimes. No matter how scummy Johnny’s actions are, Nelly is quick to defend and even quicker to fall back in love.
The biggest question that remains is whether Nelly will go the way of The Bride in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill duology or sacrifice her own individuality for feigned happiness. The ending is certainly open-ended in its abruptness, but not without heavy impact. What’s most illuminating about Phoenix is how it deals with a survivor’s innermost feelings post-ordeal. As is evident here, not everyone automatically feels elated and happy to be alive. For some, death would have been the ultimate freedom; others can only cope post-tragedy if their experiences were erased from memory, the glory days of the past the only lifeline that can get them to tomorrow and the days after. Thus, Phoenix succeeds more as a post-Holocaust reclamation story than as the Hitchcockian noir it’s meant to emulate. That being said, the genre is in need of revival and this particular film at least gets the engine running. Sundance Selects and IFC Films’ taut and affecting Phoenix opens in Los Angeles today, with a national rollout to follow in August.
Also, be sure to check out the trailer below!