Phoenix is a film that seeks to understand how we live through traumatic events. It is also a film about the passing of time, and the effect that passing has on our relationships, and on ourselves. Is it possible to recapture, or reestablish, what once was? Is there power in returning to places and people of past import, a prospect of mastery and satisfaction in regaining what was lost, or instead is it the mark of weakness, a sign of an inability to accept that the past is closed and to embrace the reality of the new person looking back at us in the mirror? Is the return a rebuke to those who scorned or betrayed us, a kind of revenge upon the past and a reassertion of our own identity, or instead a kind of stasis, a blind alley we venture down, inviting further trauma and abuse, in our inability to accept new realities? With this film, Christian Petzold delves into questions of identity not only on a personal level, but on a national one as well. Scripted by the director and the late, great Harun Faroki, Phoenix is very reminiscent of the kammerspiele films made in Germany during the early to mid 1920s. Those films, such as Murnau’s The Last Man or Jessner’s Backstairs, tend to feature lower middle class protagonists stuck in closed loops of possibility and identity formation. Often set in a few locations, most often the interiors of dingy apartments (or a men’s washroom, in the case of The Last Man), these films concentrate on psychodrama and character development, using expressionistic camerawork and lighting to augment the internal emotional states of their subjects (as well as make up for the lack of action in a more traditional sense). Set just after the end of the first World War, these films reference the damage of that conflict, both upon the bodies of their characters, and, albeit in sublimated form, upon the national character as a whole. Phoenix is similarly set just after a World War, but we have moved forward 20 years, and so find ourselves not in a world of the decrepit escapism and febrile political rebirth provided by the early Weimar years, but instead within the rubble of a destroyed and conquered Berlin, seemingly in a trance after its “liberation” from Nazi power. It asks the strange question – what would happen if you returned to the scene of your former life, went unrecognized, and then were asked to impersonate yourself?
We begin in the days just after the war, shortly after the liberation of the camps by Allied forces. Our protagonist is Nelly, a successful and cosmopolitan singer before the war who, ethnically Jewish but non-practicing, was at first hidden by her friends and husband until she was perhaps sold out by them. Her husband, Johnny, was a successful pianist, but not Jewish. When we meet Nelly, she has just barely survived the camps, and has been disfigured by violence shortly before they fell. Accompanied by her friend, caretaker, and Zionist Lene, Nelly undergoes plastic surgery to restore her face. She is warned that she should pick a new “type” of visage, as trying to get her back to her old self will leave her in an uncanny place, partly looking like she used to, partly a stranger. Regardless, she wants to look as close to her past self as she can. Healed up and, presumably, occupying the doubly uncanny space of not quite looking like herself while slipping back into the city she once called home, now a broken edifice, Nelly becomes obsessed with news of Johnny, and wishes a reunion. Lene tries to convince her that Johnny was the cause of her suffering, but Nelly is unconvinced (or perhaps simply still in love). She searches the streets, and then the nightclubs, until she discovers him, working, not as a musician, but as a busboy. After a few missed connections, she finally gets to speak with him, but he does not recognize her, and she does not reveal her true identity. Taking her for someone desperate for work, rather than truth, Johnny (now calling himself Johannes) suggests that since she somewhat resembles his past wife, whom he is convinced is dead, Nelly should enter into a deception with him. She will pretend to be his wife, mocking up a return to the city for the benefit of their friends, and, ultimately, to his benefit, as his wife was due to inherit her family’s estate (since the entire family was murdered in the camps). Nelly will pretend to be… Nelly, long enough for Johnny to claim the estate. Nelly will get a cut, she is assured. So we enter this strange, dreamlike pas de deux where Nelly lives most of the time with Johnny, observing him, trying to ferret out the truth of his betrayal. Was it forced upon him by circumstance – and hence is there a possibility for a reunion? Or did he sell her out callously, revealing himself to be a different man than she believed? Lene, of course, is horrified at this turn of events. About how the plot resolves itself, I will say no more, except that it is one of those rare films (rare except in the works of a master like Tarkovsky) where the final shot reveals everything, bringing together all the threads of the narrative as well as laying bare the emotional truths at play throughout. In this, Phoenix is fairly singular among recent films, as it practically demands to be viewed a second time in order to sort through the implications of the resolution and to allow us to feel the full force of the ambivalences and ironies at play in this tragedy. (Or is it a story of strength and redemption)?
The narrative may sound contrived. In some ways, it is guilty on this count, but it matters not, as we understand we are witnessing not just a character drama, but a larger metaphor for the afterlife. Not heaven, mind you, but life after the world has been destroyed. In the reunion of Nelly and Johnny, we witness the attempted assimilation of the survivors of a pogrom into a social fabric that they, years earlier, would have called their own. We sense that Johnny is now Johannes as a way to shore up his German identity post-facto; not as a way of proving his nationalism (as he might have done during the war), but as a means of convincing himself that this is who he was all along, as a way of both explaining to himself why he could do what he did, as well as running from the memory of that past life (in this way, the name becomes his scarlet letter). Nelly is trying to come to terms with the betrayal of an entire nation as it is personified in the people she knew and loved; were these people different than she always thought, or were they too the instruments of a diabolical machine far beyond anyone’s control? Are they sorry? Do they feel guilty? Are they even responsible for what happened to her? By being asked to impersonate herself, Nelly becomes a metaphor for her own impossible situation – she is still the same, and she is also completely different. She is, in effect, being asked to live both in the past, and in the future, with the present a kind of waking nightmare. The film has a taste of noir, but the airless, compressed, and dreamlike nature of the narrative is more reminiscent of the previously mentioned kammerspiele, and the different registers the film works in removes any reluctance we might have to accept this contrivance as truth. For Nelly is a contrived person – she is trying to recover an identity stolen from her while accounting for the fact that everyone she knew has also had something taken from them. In a way, the ending suggests, she is in the best possible position, for whatever her future, she does not have to reconcile her own guilt, or wonder what lie she has chosen to live. Her mask is sewn onto her face – she really is a new person – whereas her countrymen are left wondering, perhaps, if the mask they once donned is their true self, or worse, if there is a difference between the mask and the reality. Petzold is a well regarded German director, but one whose work I know far too little of – while he is responsible for prominent films such as Jerichow (2008) and Barbara (2012), I am only familiar with his entry in the Dreileben trilogy (his entry, the excellent first segment Something Better than Death (2011), deals with young love and class relations in an exceptionally nuanced and heartbreaking way). Phoenix is a rarity, in that it provides no answers, easy or otherwise, and no closure, while being sensitive to the points of view, and the pain, of all its characters, be they tainted by their choices or not. While the phoenix is often the emblem of rebirth, a kind of token for moving on, Petzold concentrates on the ashes, and on the struggle that lies behind the attempt to keep going. For ashes also signify rest, and finality, whereas the process of birth is a violent one. Rebirth is no more of a choice than death is, and the true horror of Nelly’s ordeal is that, dead or alive, she has no way out of it. At the same time, the phoenix can fly, and the film also suggests that impersonating herself might not help her fly off to a wonderful new life, but that she can perhaps climb above the world that left her behind.