Phoenix is a surprisingly in-depth and considerate study of identity and the relationship between two people that, unfortunately, is almost hidden away by a silly, hokey plot. It takes its time to settle, with the first half-hour or so being at times quite gratingly stale as well as ridiculous, but once the film reaches the heart of its intentions, it quickly becomes a much more intimate, interesting film. There are more than a few echoes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, something which has been picked up on by many other reviewers, but to that I would also add the film noir classic The Third Man, what with both films being set in Germanic cities still suffocating under post-war rubble, and their respective plots revolving around people who are thought-to-be-dead-but-actually-aren’t, with a certain amount of noirish visuals (only gently pronounced here in Phoenix however).
But first of all I will recount the plot. Granted, it’s far from the most ridiculous plot I’ve ever seen onscreen, but in the context of a European drama made with relatively serious artistic ambitions, it is certainly quite jarring. The story goes that Nelly (Nina Hoss) returns to post-WWII Berlin after barely surviving the Nazi death camps as a Jew and undergoes facial reconstruction surgery, which uhm…turns out to be quite impressive for 2015, let alone 1945. Once she’s recovered, she tracks down her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), but he doesn’t recognise her, although he does notice a similarity. Believing the real Nelly to be dead, he convinces her to pretend to be herself so that he can pick up the inheritance money, leading to constant ‘will-she-won’t-she’ moments as to whether she will eventually reveal that she is in fact herself. Yes, I realise that all this sounds utterly preposterous. Perhaps it’s one of the strengths of Phoenix that it quietly overcomes this pulp fiction plot that feels more at home in a B-movie straight-to-video Face/Off rip-off rather than an immaculate-looking modern European drama.
After all, ultimately it is not what a story is about, but how it is about it. At its heart, Phoenix is a film that is about identity and love. It is about a question posed by many works throughout time. When we love someone, who is it that we love? Do we really love that person, or just an idea of that person? This is a film about a man who has lost his wife, who then finds another person who is very similar to her, and tries to mould her to become what he remembers of his wife. In that sense, there is a thematic line from Phoenix to, of all things, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 sci-fi masterpiece Solaris, which is also a film about a man whose lost wife returns, but is forever locked in as a product of his memories rather than an individual on her own terms.
Where Phoenix differs is that it takes the point-of-view of the woman. Nelly seems too frightened, too traumatised, to be open to Johnny, and not only that she remains deeply in love with him, despite evidence that he may have betrayed her Jewish roots to the Nazis. It is never clear whether he did, nor is it clear whether he’s trying to claim her heritage out of cynicism and hate or just a need for survival in destitute, poverty-ridden post-war Berlin. Subversively, by allowing Johnny to ‘mould’ her into what he remembers of their relationship, Nelly is allowed to see, with none of the hidden motives or restraint we often deploy in relationships to avoid conflict or dissatisfaction, exactly how her husband imagined her. She ‘grows’ back into the role of being herself almost, clawing back her pre-war life. She is able to gain the upper hand precisely because her husband is playing such a completely emotionally open role even as he assumes he is the one in control.
It is this central theme of Phoenix that makes it worth watching. Director Christian Petzold manages the film with a strong narrative precision and focus, bringing us relatively smoothly to the thematic heart of the film whilst slyly making the audience forget about the absurdities of the plot. Most important is the performances he draws out of his two lead actors. Nina Hoss, a regular in Petzold’s films, is utterly astounding, communicating a whole world of trauma in Nelly’s body language without ever speaking about it out loud. She has been getting many of the plaudits the film has received, but credit too should go to Ronald Zehrfeld who has less of a scene-stealing role but is just as equally important. His strong build and physical screen presence suggests a man who has built a wall around himself, and he uses this shield to manipulate others. Slowly however, that wall is chipped away, and Zehrfeld strikes just the right line between the cautious guarded Johnny, and the more open version of him that had disappeared during the war.
Phoenix‘s closing moments are astounding. Though the film as a whole is no brilliant masterpiece, it is a very strong drama, handled strongly by Petzold and his two stars. The plot remains, yes, hokey, and occasionally distracting, but the fact Phoenix overcomes such a grating start is testament to the craft that has gone into making it too.