“Petzold’s stark effervescence in depicting the past is evident… igniting extensive subtexts and subtleties under a deceptively minimalist front.”
“Love is a spark lost in the dark, too soon, too soon… ”
– Ogden Nash, “Speak Low”
by Ken B.
Nelly (Nina Hoss) and Johannes (Ronald Zehrfeld), who would prefer to be called “Johnny”, thank-you-very-much, divorced in October 1944. Nelly, a gifted Jewish singer with a clarified voice, was arrested shortly after the end of her marriage and subsequent return to her native Germany, her location tipped off to the Nazis by sources unknown. She emerged concentration camp alive, but was the only member of her immediate family to do so, and in the process of escaping during a chaotic Allied liberation, was shot through the cheek, horribly mangling her entire face. Her good friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) takes her to a nearby clinic, where Nelly undergoes reconstructive surgery, with her “new face” starkly different than her pre-war appearance.
Now she wants to find Johnny, which she does after finding him working as a busboy in a nightclub called Phoenix. He does not recognize her, and has no reason to presume his wife is alive anyway. Regardless, Johnny sees a resemblance, and has a plan: Because he would be eligible to collect a $20,000 inheritance from Nelly’s family’s estate if he were able to convince them that she was alive, he begins grooming “Esther” (the name she introduces herself to him as) to resemble his ex-wife in every way possible, to fool the lawyers and collect the cash. And as Nelly begins to examine her marriage and her past from the outside in, she learns secrets, makes painful connections, and must confront a devastating truth.
In Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, this twisting, turbulent plot builds to what many critics and viewers have rightfully described as one of the most emotionally powerful climaxes of any recent film. I would not dare spoil it here. But lest you think it’s a mediocre movie with a great ending, I shall further stress the production’s captivating cinematography and haunting performances, especially from Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld. The lead actors and the writer/director reunite after the trio’s excellent 2012 effort, Barbara. Petzold’s stark effervescence in depicting the past is evident in this movie, too, igniting extensive subtexts and subtleties under a deceptively minimalist front. And while the story structure shares similarities to Vertigo, he effectively carves out a unique approach which leaves an impact.
The script embodies itself as a captivating examination of realities and fantasies, especially the impossibly packed pedagogic proposal of Nelly being told by her ex-husband what she was like, how she moved, how she talked, how she wrote. Thankfully, Petzold does not soak in the potential hubris of this complicated approach, and keeps things flowing with a destructively effective pace, with rhythmic story beats building and building, to a last act release of impractically high levels of tension that the viewer isn’t fully aware exists until the rug is pulled. A continual appearance of the 1943 song “Speak Low”, with nostalgic, longing lyrics, is used in at once an entirely understandable and crushingly ironic fashion.
With the telling exception of the final five minutes, Phoenix is largely shot in simple, noirish, cooled down color palettes. The red glow of a neon nightclub sign illuminates a section of dusk-fallen street in post-war Berlin. Exteriors and interiors alike are angled in silhouette or indirect light. The message from Petzold and director of photography Hans Fromm is clear – this is a story which, despite its sizable scope, will coagulate as something intimately, uncomfortably personal and unflinching at the end of its 98 minutes. In a continuing motif from Barbara, the camera is not locked down, but is also thoroughly uninterested in unnecessary motion. The scenery and the actors do the talking, and the lens is a capturing device, rather than a sentient companion.
What makes Phoenix special beyond its screenplay and aesthetic, however, is the quiet but evident strength of its performances. While I’ve never been a fan of certain filmmakers’ habits to enlist the same cast over and over again, it seems to have worked for Christian Petzold. Reuniting Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld to play opposite each other is one of the movie’s greatest pleasures, as their clipped dialogue and exchanges give way to something far more significant. The film is an essentially focused whirlwind, turning particular storytelling clichés it could have fixated upon into the paradoxical traps they are. Its raw, unbroken power is not immediate upon viewing, instead carrying an exuberant quality and professionalism which sneaks up on you, revealing its last great success as a slow-burn of a thriller long after the end credits have rolled.