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The Curtain Rises: On the Power of Christian Petzold’s Phoenix

The war is over, but the past is still present. Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix,” a quiet but compelling period drama about disguise and manipulation, is reticent about the dark period its heroine and others went through, but their inconvenient past becomes more palpable as we observe their gloomy post-war world. Still confused and traumatized behind her new appearance, its damaged heroine cannot help but be drawn to what may be a good chance to restore not only who she was but also a precious relationship in her past. But can she really leave behind whatever she endured during that terrible time? And, above all, can she possibly overlook that she might have been betrayed by someone she loved and trusted?

In the opening scene, we see two women in their car, which have just been stopped by American soldiers at a checkpoint. When one of the American soldiers notices that one of these two women is heavily bandaged on her head, he understandably becomes suspicious and demands she unbind her bandage. The camera does not show her bare face directly, but the soldier’s horrified reaction is more than enough for us to guess how terrible she looks in her injured state.

It is not long after the end of World War II, and Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) is going to Berlin along with her friend Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf), mainly for her treatment and recovery. After being arrested in late 1944, Nelly was promptly sent to Auschwitz, but she managed to survive in the end, and we come to gather that she sustained her serious facial injury around that time. When she is examined by a very skillful plastic surgeon, the doctor says that it will be easier to construct a new face for her instead of trying to reconstruct her original face, but Nelly, who happens to be wealthy enough to pay for her expensive surgery is adamant about getting her original face back.

After the successful reconstruction surgery, Nelly adjusts to her new face and environment with Lene’s help, though it takes some time to get used to her new appearance. It does not seem to be wholly different from the former one, but it looks and feels different to her and others. She and Lene rent a fairly nice apartment, which will be their temporary staying place for now, and they also hire a resourceful housekeeper, who can always prepare decent meals for them in spite of the poor supply of many cooking ingredients in post-war Berlin. Lene, who has been working at an agency handling the records of Holocaust victims and survivors, is planning to move to Palestine for the new beginning for her and Nelly someday, but Nelly is not so sure about whether she really wants that or not.

Meanwhile, Nelly searches for her pianist husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, who appeared along with Hoss in Petzold’s “Barbara”). Before their life was disrupted during the war, she was a singer who worked with her husband, and he helped hide her, but it seems that he was directly responsible for her capture. According to an official record, Johnny was arrested and then released shortly before she was arrested, and this clearly suggests his betrayal, even if Nelly has trouble believing it.

Nelly eventually finds Johnny, but he no longer works as a pianist. Working at a seedy nightclub named Phoenix, he now prefers to be called Johannes instead of Johnny, and he does not even recognize his wife when they finally meet again. To him, Nelly is merely a woman who happens to closely resemble his dead wife. And then it turns out that Johnny has a scheme in which Nelly may be quite useful. Looking for any chance to get his hands on his dead wife’s considerable fortune, Johnny asks Nelly to disguise herself as, well, herself. Though she does not reveal her identity, Nelly finds herself becoming her husband’s willing accomplice while unpacking the conflicted she has about him.

As Nelly spends more time with Johnny at his shabby residence, he coaches her on various details about how to look and behave as “Nelly.” This initially looks like an easy job for Nelly at first, but she soon realizes how much she is changed from her former self, and there is a dark, twisted irony reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958) in her struggle to satisfy her pathetic husband. Johnny and Nelly try to restore the image of a woman gone from their life, and it's simultaneously unnerving and poignant to watch attempting to create the illusion they both desire for very different reasons. Although denial of his own complicity never allows Johnny to consider that the woman he's using is actually his wife, he sometimes feels uncomfortable with his deceitful plan. Nelly gradually becomes more relaxed and confident in her ‘performance,’ like an actress getting accustomed to her role, even if that role is a former version of herself.

As shown from his several notable films including “Barbara,” “Undine,” and “Transit,” Petzold is very good at establishing a quiet but nervous mood to engage and intrigue, and “Phoenix” is also equipped with impressive visual touches that never break its reserved tone. The sights of ruined buildings and barren streets evoke the glum, down-trodden atmosphere hanging around post-war Berlin and its moody inhabitants, and the cinematography by Hans Fromm further accentuates that through the effective use of high contrast in the night scenes. Usually suffused with dark red lights during its opening hours, the Phoenix club is literally drenched in that pulpy ambience of film noir, and we even get a gaudy German rendition of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” at one point.

With her expressive face and subtle body language, Nina Hoss masterfully depicts each nervous step, and she is especially terrific when Nelly indirectly reveals herself during her conversation with her husband about how they should make her look more authentic as “Nelly.” She virtually tells him what she experienced during that despairing period of hers, but disguises it as a part of her preparation for playing “Nelly.” Hoss’ superb performance deftly tiptoes on a thin line between deception and sincerity during this somber but undeniably memorable scene.

It is also quite interesting to watch how Hoss and her co-star Ronald Zehrfeld interact with each other in a mode completely different from their previous performances in “Barbara,” where Hoss played a stigmatized East German doctor who will not let others get close. In the case of “Phoenix,” Hoss is the one who tries to get closer to the other, and many scenes in “Phoenix” depend solely on the emotional dynamics generated between the performances by Hoss and Zehrfeld.

After carefully building its narrative momentum during most of its running time, “Phoenix” finally arrives at the point where something is be bound to happen, and you will be captivated by what Petzold, Hoss, and Zehrfeld deliver on the screen. As the characters in this undeniably powerful scene come to learn, truth always finds a way in the end, no matter how much they let themselves blind and silent to it. As I reflect more on the finale, I am reminded of a phrase I encountered many years ago: "However, truth lifts up that heavy and thick curtain and the stately reveals itself."

Seongyong Cho

Seongyong Cho writes extensively about film on his site, Seongyong's Private Place.

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