The intricacies of identity merge with the horrors of the Holocaust in director Christian Petzold’s devastating Phoenix, a typically ambiguous study on whether recovery is something that can be performed. Steeped in film history, yet never in thrall to it, Petzold’s melodrama is a paean to the power of artifice, daringly shunning realism to find unlikely new angles on this most painfully real of subjects. In a world spun off its axis, no matter how hard you rehearse a particular act, you can still never know how the performance will turn out.
Phoenix opens with two Jewish women being stopped at an American checkpoint on their way into 1945 Berlin, one as seemingly unscathed as the fancy car she’s driving, one moaning in pain, the bandages covering her face soaked in blood. As Lena (Nina Kunzendorf) explains to one of the guards, her injured companion, Nelly (Nina Hoss), is a concentration camp survivor, the guard’s grimace once she removes the bandages more than enough to convey just how destroyed her visage must be. Once back in the city, Nelly is operated on at a pristine clinic, her enthusiastic doctor quick to extol the virtues of a new face at a time when many want to disappear. Upon her release, Nelly moves to an equally immaculate lakeside house with Lena, who’s impatiently planning their relocation to Palestine, where Nelly’s soon-to-be freed fortune would be well spent.
But Nelly is as incapable of contemplating the future as she is of coming to terms with her new, unrecognizable face, preferring to revisit the songs she used to sing or the now-bombed-out house she shared with her ex-husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). After Lena reluctantly informs Nelly that Johnny survived the war, possibly by betraying his wife, she trawls the noirish shadows of nocturnal Berlin until she does indeed find him at a backstreet club named Phoenix, only to realize in horror that he no longer recognizes her. But Johnny does at least notice a passing resemblance to his ex-wife in this anguished stranger and is quick to exploit it, forging a plan whereby Nelly will learn to play her former self convincingly enough for the two of them to access and split her fortune, a morbidly pragmatic scheme which the shattered Nelly is just desperate enough to accept.
If this melodramatic setup sounds implausible to the point of incredulity, that’s probably because it is an exercise in the sort of willing suspension of disbelief that cinema itself is built on. For as Petzold repeatedly demonstrates, this story isn’t beholden to the laws of reality, but rather unfolds in an imaginary realm pieced together from cinematic references, a place where Nazi-era actresses Zarah Leander and Kristina Söderbaum form the inspiration for Nelly’s new face, counting to 10 is something you learn from Lang’s Women in the Moon, and the ruins of Berlin never feel like anything other than an endless stage set. These direct allusions are echoed by countless indirect ones: Scottie’s grooming of Judy in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the bandaged Christiane of Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, the entire German “Trümmerfilm” genre.
Yet Petzold never luxuriates in all this film history, but rather channels the artifice and affect it embodies into new insights. For Nelly’s questionable pact offers an oblique way of exploring a trauma so complete that there’s no stance, no movement, no gesture it hasn’t destroyed. If you no longer exist, as Nelly herself remarks near the beginning of the film, does that make you willing to perform any identity at all, regardless of how soiled? In the hands of such a masterful actress as Hoss, the mechanics of this deeply ambivalent rendition grow more heartbreaking with each fresh turn of the screw, with the unbelievable modulation of Hoss’s voice and body perfectly mapping out each stage in Nelly’s regressive transformation. She’s matched all the way by Kunzendorf, who conveys Lena’s anger at both what has been visited on Nelly and how she behaves as a result with a steely poise that’s itself one more construction for masking despair.
As Nelly finds familiarity in the unfamiliar and her efforts at self-mimicry bear fruit, a gradual shift occurs, a sense that memory and invention might just be giving birth to something new. Or perhaps it’s just the growing realization that the stage that’s to receive her act is itself just another act, a deluded collective desire to believe that someone can return from the camps the same as before. There’s comfort in the idea that when everyone is on stage, the distinction between actor and director no longer applies. But as the rules of the standard melodrama yield to Petzold’s trademark ambiguity, it becomes clear that only time will tell if all acts are truly made equal, a sublime, troubling sentiment echoed by the refrain of the perfectly chosen Kurt Weill song that snakes its way through the film: “Tomorrow is here, tomorrow is near and always too soon.”