The idea behind Phoenix, the new German film slowly rolling out across the US, feels like something that would have driven a '90s action thriller.
A woman, her visage scarred by horrors unimaginable, has facial reconstructive surgery, so she looks like herself, but also not like herself. She goes to find the husband who may have betrayed her — only to realize he doesn't recognize her. But he thinks she looks enough like his wife (whom he believes to be dead) that she can collect — and then split with him — a bunch of money she is owed.
So he's going to train her to be just like his wife — without realizing he's teaching her to be just like herself. Perhaps because she's not sure of his loyalties anymore, she stays quiet as to her true identity. Can't you imagine Ashley Judd starring in the worst possible version of that?
The post–World War II Germany setting adds much to the film
What makes Phoenix so remarkable, then, is director and writer Christian Petzold's marvelous command of tone. His premise is ridiculous, sure, but he tells the whole story in tight focus. Nelly, the Holocaust survivor who is his heroine (marvelously played by Nina Hoss), starts out as a collection of bandages holding together what once was a face. As the film wears on, Petzold's camera holds on that face as it shifts and adjusts to the world it finds itself in. The backgrounds bleed out. All that's left is what this woman is experiencing.
Petzold's other terrific choice is to set his story in a world today's audiences don't know much about — immediately post–World War II Germany. Part of a recent mini-wave of German films that grapple with the legacy of the war as seen by directors who weren't alive for it, Phoenix reimagines bombed-out, rubble-strewn cities as almost dreamy places where the regular rules of logic go out the window.
Early in the film, Nelly visits her old home, now a pile of bricks, and awkwardly picks her way through the mess. Looking at the chaos, she comes to one conclusion: "I don't exist."
Though she was not an observant Jew before the war, Nelly was sent to Auschwitz anyway, because of her heritage. Her survival is a total accident — she was shot in the face and left for dead. And her new face serves as a visual metaphor for what's happened to her. Sometimes, events happen to people that are so horrific that they effectively become entirely new people, unrecognizable even to those who loved them most.
How director and actress build a terrific central character
Petzold chooses to keep images of the "old" Nelly obscured. Photos of her usually feature her in profile, shielded by her hair, and a couple of dream sequences keep her in shadow. It's, in one way, a practical solution to the problem of finding an actress who looks like Hoss but not quite like her, but it's also a great representation of the way trauma splits lives in two, so that those who have suffered and survived find those old lives swathed in hazy darkness.
None of it would work without Hoss and her two most frequent scene partners, Ronald Zehrfeld (as husband Johnny, who may have turned her over to the Nazis) and Nina Kunzendorf (as Lene, seemingly the only friend Nelly has left — unless she has motives of her own). Hoss plays Nelly as, effectively, the human equivalent of nails scraping along a chalkboard — all frayed nerves and halting, colt-like steps. And as she figures out how to navigate her new self (and whether there's a place for Johnny or Lene in that life), Hoss turns that process into a kind of moving into a new life — figuring out what to keep from the old life and what to throw out. She's devastating in the film's final scene, which is also its best.
The comparison point most often made in review of Phoenix is to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. (Look! I just did it, too!) But what sets Phoenix apart from, say, Vertigo (the Hitchcock film it most resembles, what with Vertigo's similar set of female doppelgangers, one trained to behave like the other) is the way it focuses entirely on the journey of the woman in its story, rather than the man training her. Simply shifting the perspective reveals so many new facets to the story — and to the very human idea of picking up and reassembling the pieces of yourself after they've been shattered and scattered.
Phoenix is currently playing in New York. It will expand throughout the country in the weeks to come.