There is a surreal nightmarish scene near the beginning of Christian Petzold’s Phoenix. Two patients, their faces completely bandaged up, step out into a greenly sterile hospital corridor. They are dressed identically – faceless stumbling ghosts. Silently they creep into a side room where they rush to look at old photos of themselves with the people they used to know. It is a fitting start to a film concerned with identity and what remains of it after deep and abiding trauma.
One of the bandaged figures is Nelly, a former chanteuse who survived Auschwitz, though she lost her entire family and suffered terrible facial injuries from a gunshot wound. She returns to Berlin to undergo surgical reconstruction. Offered, encouraged even, to take a new face, she declines. She wants only to be herself. Set in postwar Berlin in 1945, the film asks if this is possible, both for our protagonist and a society in literal and metaphorical ruins.
Nelly has come back from the dead and at first she moves and looks like a ghost; she tells her friend Lene, “I don’t exist.” But she longs to and searches war-ravaged Berlin for her husband Johnny, the thought of whom kept her going during her ordeal. But even if she finds him, will he be the same? The city is a crumbling dimly-lit ghost world inhabited by hollow characters playing any role to survive.
Lene, who works at a Jewish agency, seems to be Nelly’s only surviving friend – she helps her, nurses her and plans a better life for them both in Palestine. When Nelly resists leaving Berlin and makes it clear she is going to find Johnny, Lene darkly insinuates that he may not be the man she thinks he is. But Nelly has to find him and soon a remarkably Hitchcockian twist finds her reenacting rather than living her old life. All we know is that nothing is certain.
Tackling the events of twentieth-century German history and the profound effect on the individuals living through it is not unknown territory for acclaimed director Christian Petzold. His 2012 feature Barbara told the story of a doctor punished by the state and hounded by the Stasi for trying to leave for the West. But where that film toyed with and tracked the ever-changing balance sheet of betrayal, deceit and love, subtly showing the compromises everyone makes to survive, Phoenix never quite rises from the flames.
No doubt it’s hard to do in ninety-eight celluloid minutes what say Sebald does in his towering literary masterpiece, ‘Austerlitz'- to transmit a sense of your entire past being erased, in everything but your physical shell ceasing to exist. But still, though it is a beautifully constructed story, the characters and their relationships to each other are not developed. The film effectively portrays a postwar world reeling from individual and collective trauma, horror and guilt. And Nelly fully represents this, moving like an automaton through the patterns of her old life. But at times the complexities are moved over too quickly for the sake of plot.
Most notably, the key relationship between Nelly and her rather furtive husband is not intense enough. The same actors, Nina Hoss (a firm Petzold favourite) and Ronald Zehrfeld excelled in Barbara, but the potential complexity and pain of their strange meta-dance with the past and present is not fully explored here. Though it’s worth mentioning that Hoss as Nelly is superb. In a sense, this is a film about being haunted and she looks haunted throughout with the whole gamut of emotions flickering constantly over her drawn features, though she says little. Yet ultimately her efforts are not fully rewarded.
Still, with Petzold’s long-time cinematographer Hans Fromm creating another subtly intense and darkly stylish world, good acting and a noirish plot, this is a very watchable, at times moving film with an ending that is perfectly pitched.
Phoenix is released in UK cinemas on May 8th