Phoenix is a little tricky and requires a bit of dedication. While I enjoyed Christian Petzold’s latest feature, there might be a few qualities about it that the average viewer might not be willing to accept.
On one hand, Phoenix is a callback to certain specific cinematic elements that I appreciate very very much. It has the spirit of a slightly more polished-looking German New Wave film from the late 70’s (The Left Handed Woman, The Last Days Of Katarina Blum, The American Soldier, The American Friend, etc) combined with the noir-ish qualities of a Neil Jordan film (The Crying Game, The Brave One, Mona Lisa, etc). Phoenix also falls in line with other semi-recent German-based WW2/Post-WW2 films like Carlos, Sophie Scholl & The Baader Meinhof Complex (some of you might be scratching your head at the Carlos namedrop but the main motivation behind the misguided radical German leftists that we saw in Olivier Assayas’ film was based on extreme anti Nazi-ism that came about from the second world war).
Now…on the other hand however, some might find Phoenix to be a little tedious or, dare I say, a little boring (and if not tedious and/or boring, possibly deceptive?). Within the first act it’s more than obvious that we’re in for some kind of a psychological drama yet nothing traditionally “thrilling” or “startling” happens for quite some time, yet we’re almost led to believe otherwise (early on there’s a very potentially cryptic scene that takes place in a hospital that builds up to something that might be seen as anticlimactic or disappointing). It should also be noted that the performances (especially in the first half) are intentionally cold and slightly tense (highlighted particularly by co-star Nina Kunzendorf who plays Nelly’s friend “Lene”). Again – these are aspects that some might appreciate while others might be turned off by. Personally, I don’t mind any of that. I appreciate slow build-ups and I’m also more interested in things being conveyed through a look, hint or an implication rather than drawn-out dialogue. But I imagine this film was made for an audience larger than just myself so hopefully folks will appreciate what Christian Petzold is trying to do with Phoenix (thankfully it’ll be screening at art house theaters like The IFC Center rather than an AMC so perhaps the audience going in to this will know what to expect).
In Phoenix we follow “Nelly” (Nina Hoss) – A concentration camp survivor/lounge singer living in post World War 2 Berlin. At the very beginning of the film we learn that her face has been disfigured from her time at the concentration camp and she requires extensive reconstructive surgery. And to make things worse, it’s quite possible that her mysterious husband “Johnny” is the cause of it all. Nelly’s new post-surgery face gives her a new identity (her face is pretty unrecognizable to those who knew her before the surgery) and she uses this to her advantage. Nelly, now posing as a different woman, tracks down her husband Johnny to find out if he really sold her out. The two old lovers strike up a new relationship (Johnny doesn’t realize it’s Nelly although he does acknowledge the similar facial features) and Nelly finds herself taking the place of her old self (the identity switching draws an obvious comparison to films like Vertigo and Lost Highway). Both parties have ulterior motives with each other.
Phoenix can be seen as an obvious take on issues ranging from trust to the idea of “rebirth”. It’s also a comment on the self worth that women have of themselves and the sometimes strange loyalty they show for their unworthy male counterparts.
Some might look at Phoenix as a response to something like The Night Porter. In the Night Porter, Charlotte Rampling plays a concentration camp survivor that strikes up a relationship with her former Nazi overseer. In Phoenix we see a female holocaust survivor start up a similarly complicated/detrimental relationship with a man who is the possible cause/source of her pain. The female protagonist is an understated fixture within modern German-based cinema. Besides some of the aforementioned works I referenced earlier on (Katarina Blum, Sophie Scholl, The Left Handed Woman, etc), films like Coup De Grace, Barbara (another collaboration between Petzold & Hoss), The Marriage Of Marina Braun, Lola & even Run Lola Run are further examples. Although not as prolific as most films from the German New Wave movement, Phoenix does come from the same school of thought (perhaps publications like Jezebel & Indiewire might want to look in to German cinema to satisfy their appetite for more prominent women on the big screen).
If you appreciate modern German cinema — with a complex female lead, Phoenix might just be up your alley.