Like Ships Adrift, by David Bax
Christian Petzold is a director who subtly wields the trappings of genre to underline and familiarize stories that are imbued with personal and political heft. His last film, the note-perfect Barbara, used the outline of a thriller to explore the push and pull between morality and politics in 1980s East Germany. His newest film, Phoenix, similarly employs the elements of a horror movie in its allegory of the German nation and its people after they both survived and carried out a genocide. Unfortunately, Phoenix is undone by a premise that asks the audience to swallow a bit more than they may be prepared to.
Nina Hoss (also the star of Barbara and just as flawless a performer here as she was in that film) is Nelly, a woman who has barely survived the concentration camps. Before evacuating, the guards shot her in the face and left her for dead. After plastic surgery, she returns to Berlin. Her friend wants to relocate to Israel but Nelly is intent on finding her husband, whom she still loves and refuses to believe sold her out to the SS, as rumors have it.
When first we meet Nelly, her head is wrapped entirely in bandages while she travels to the hospital and then while she awaits her surgery there. The image, probably intentionally, recalls The Invisible Man and Eyes Without a Face. Petzold turns the hospital ward a dark, quiet and eerie limbo haunted by Nelly and other faceless spectres, while stately violins enhance the classic creepiness.
When the bandages come off, the ghostliness only increases. Nelly herself declares, “I no longer exist,” stalking through the rubble of her former home, her stricken face turning her into a hollow revenant.
All of this, however, takes place in the first act. A major shift takes place once Nelly finds her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) and, due to her surgery and the physical changes brought on by the camps, he fails to recognize her. Or, perhaps, he only pretends not to recognize her. Either way, this is where Phoenix starts to ask too much of its audience.
It’s not Johnny’s inability to recognize his wife that sticks in the craw. It’s that Nelly, who has gone to great lengths to track him down, at no point says, “Hey, it’s me, your wife.” Her suddenly demure behavior does not track with the character we’ve come to know. Petzold is pushing his allegory – of a nation unable to fully acknowledge its culpability – to the point that it does a disservice to his characters. Phoenix is beautifully constructed and melancholy piece of cinema but its implausibility means that it can only be admired from a distance.