The boundaries of implausibility are pushed to their limits in Phoenix, the latest film by Christian Petzold. Shifting his attention away from the mistrusting milieu of Cold War Germany he explored in his widely lauded previous film Barbara, and on to the broken shell of Post WW2 Berlin, the director attempts to analyse the complexities of a nation trying to pick itself up after the biggest of knocks. It starts strong, and has a powerful central performance from Petzold’s muse Nina Hoss, but as its narrative begins to loose all sense of reality, Phoenix looses all sense of purpose.
Hoss plays Nelly, a Holocaust survivor attempting to pick up the pieces of her life following her devastating treatment at the hands of the Nazis. With her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) by her side, she undergoes facial reconstructive surgery, and then proceeds to search the city for her husband (Ronald Zehrfeld), whom Lene believes was the one who betrayed Nelly to the Nazis…
Trying to underline Phoenix’s pivotal problem without spoiling the remainder of the film is enough to give one a devastating migraine. Suffice to say that Nelly eventually finds herself living with her husband once more. However, the circumstances involve her hiding her identity from him and masquerading as another woman without any obvious motive… Sound ridiculous? That’s because it is!
More frustrating though is that it belies the film’s commanding opening. Hoss supplements her performance with an understated command during the early scenes. While Hans From’s camera coldly but effectively focuses on the devastating ruins of Berlin, we watch as Nelly incarnates the role of the phoenix and rises from the ashes. Imbued with a restrained poignancy, Hoss’ performance powerfully underscores the subsequent psychological trauma of those who suffered such devastation at the hands of the Third Reich. Her intrinsic professionalism ensuring Nelly’s internal agonies are never overplayed for the purposes of dramatic license.
The same cannot be said of Petzold’s script. Absorbing as it is to begin with, once Nelly and her husband are reunited, Phoenix descends into the realms of the ridiculous. Depth and detail are dispensed with in place of a seemingly endless stream of plot holes, which Petzold never shows any interest in addressing. He’s more concerned with stringing together an ineffectual farrago of uncomfortable sequences that follow Nelly as she pretends to be someone else in order to feel closer to her husband. Her reasons for never wanting to tell him the truth are callously glossed over, leaving the audience baffled and, worse still, uninterested.
As throughout, the final scene is perfectly played (and pitched) by the superb Hoss. However, by then any resolve to care for Nelly is hard to muster. It’s still quite rare to find a film that addresses German life following the culmination of the Second World War. After watching Phoenix, it begins to feel like a blessing.