It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
How do we process unimaginable betrayal? How do we overcome the kind of events that forever alter the trajectory of a life we so desperately want back? These are just two of the questions addressed by Christian Petzold’s masterful “Phoenix,” a film that firmly cements its director as one of the most impressive working today. With echoes of “Vertigo,” and a deeply confident visual language, Petzold’s film resonates long after its perfect ending. This is a riveting piece of work that never loses sight of its human story while also serving as a commentary for how an entire country deals with tragedies like war. A film this satisfying on every level—one that can be enjoyed purely for its narrative while also providing material for hours of discussion on its themes—is truly rare.
“Phoenix” opens with a face profiled in darkness. It is the face of Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a woman driving a bandaged and bloodied passenger back to Berlin. Her face has been badly damaged, but she is a survivor of a concentration camp. After a brief encounter at a checkpoint, the pair drives further and headlights fill the screen before the title comes up. This story will clearly be one of darkness to light, even if it’s a light that sometimes blinds you.
We learn that the passenger is Nelly Lenz (Petzold’s collaborator, Nina Hoss), a German-Jewish nightclub singer, who, from the appearance of photographs and discussions with friend Lene, had a happy life. She was married to a handsome, confident man named Johnny (another Petzold regular, Ronald Zehrfeld). On October 4th, Johnny was taken in for questioning by the SS. Two days later, he was released, and Nelly was transported to a concentration camp. Did Johnny betray his wife’s Jewish background? Clearly. And yet Nelly refuses to believe it. She wants her old life back. And that means denial that her husband was and is a self-serving monster. After her plastic surgeon advises her that she can look like anyone and start a new life, she tells him, “I want to look exactly like I used to.” She is defiantly, stubbornly in denial about what has happened to her.
Over Lene’s objections, Nelly returns to Berlin, seeking out Johnny. She is a shattered woman in a city of rubble. She tells Lene, “I no longer exist.” The relationship, the friends she now sees only in pictures, even the city she once lived in—they’re all gone. She finds some semblance of familiarity in Phoenix, the nightclub that literally looks like an oasis in ruins. It’s like a dream that people find amidst the rubble of a bombed-out city. And that’s where she finds Johnny. He grabs her one night. He has a plan. He needs someone to pretend to be his dead wife, so he can claim her inheritance as there’s no evidence that his wife is dead. “You have to play my wife.” And the parallels between “Phoenix” and “Vertigo” come into strong focus as Johnny begins to turn this woman he believes is a stranger into the wife he betrayed, and, in doing so, brings Nelly back to life.