Tuesday, May 5, 2015

'Phoenix' (2014) directed by Christian Petzold

You'd expect the tale of a disfigured Holocaust survivor to be some damn grim dramatic territory. But Christian Petzold's Phoenix turns out to be less traumatising, and more eerily odd. Set in Berlin immediately following the war, we find Germany waking up a hangover from hell, comfortable Nazis now social pariahs, traitors  trying to brush their crimes under the rug and, most affecting, the slow homeward trickle of survivors of the death camps.

Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) is one such survivor. Shot in the face during liberation of the camps, she's rushed to a plastic surgery clinic where her face is painstakingly reconstructed. After being shown potential 'new faces' (creepily recalling catalogue shopping), she requests recreation of her old face. In a miracle of surgery she ends up looking quite beautiful, though only passingly like her old self.

With the cinders of war cooling, Nelly resolves to track down her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). This is where it gets complicated. While Nelly loves Johnny, deep down she knows that he must have betrayed her to the Nazis. Nonetheless she tracks him down, but as Johnny doesn't recognise her, having assumed his wife died in Auschwitz. 

Now, with every single member of her family dead, Nelly stands to gain a large inheritance. Johnny regards this inheritance with hungry eyes. He thus hatches a plan to get Nelly (now masquerading as 'Esther') to pretend to be Nelly, gradually transforming her into the person she actually is. Despite Nelly having the exact same handwriting, voice and mannerisms she did before the war, Johnny remains completely in the dark - not remotely suspecting that the woman he's trying to turn into his wife is actually his wife.

It's completely preposterous. That Johnny doesn't recognise his wife (who he last saw approximately a year ago) makes him look like a complete dilz. She doesn't even look that different than before the surgery, not to mention that she keeps dropping clanging hints about her true identity. It's one of those films where you want to reach through the screen, tap the character on the shoulder and whisper "uh dude, she's obviously your wife". I usually find it pretty easy to suspend my disbelief in a film, but my instinctive response here was feeling really embarrassed for Johnny and wondering just what the hell Nelly saw in this dunce.

Thankfully while the plot doesn't make sense on a narrative level it succeeds symbolically. In Nelly's gradual transformation we see a shattered human being struggling to reassemble themselves, haunted by the memory of their past self. Hoss, in a typically magnificent performance, plays Nelly as brittle and awkward, her floodlight eyes and rigid gait marking her as vulnerable and intrinsically 'damaged'.

Zehrfeld's Johnny works as a portrait of intense denial. Perhaps, deep down, he secretly knows that 'Esther' is really Nelly, but to acknowledge this fact would be to admit his crimes. Zehrfeld never tips the character into outright villainy; while Johnny isn't remotely sympathetic, we can at least understand his actions arising from a war-hardened desire to survive at all costs. 

Both characters come to represent wider swathes of the postwar German people; Johnny is the archetypal civilian trying to come to terms with his role as the 'good man that did nothing' and Nelly is the quintessential victim whose mere presence arouses guilt. The period immediately following World War 2 in Germany is a relatively unexplored cinematic world, and Petzold demonstrates a firm psychological, aesthetic and humanist grasp of what lurks under these easy smiles.

There's also a wonderful sense of being within cinematic history as well. An obvious touchstone is the suspenseful psych-horror Les Yeux Sans Visage; the simple visual of a low-lit hospital populated by women with bandaged faces portrayed with limbo-like solemnity. Similarly, in Johnny's demented quest to recreate his former wife, there's big chunks of Vertigo. These, combined with a jazzy The Third Man-ish injured city struggling to reassemble itself (mirroring Nelly's plight), gives Phoenix a refreshingly different tone from the reverent holocaust film genre.

As good as all that stuff is (and it is really good), I can't get away from the silly central premise. The emotional core of Phoenix hinges on a suspension of disbelief that I couldn't quite muster. I wish I could, the closing scenes would hit like a cannonball to the chest, but what can I say - it left me cold. Fortunately almost everything else is great, which makes this a recommendation, albeit a reserved one.


Phoenix is released 8th May 2015

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