'Phoenix' has a premise both preposterous and deeply haunting
The latest from acclaimed German director Christian Petzold ("Barbara") mixes "Vertigo" with "Seconds" for a disturbing look at guilt after WWII.
Director: Christian Petzold
Stars: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld
5 (out of 5) Globes
“Phoenix” involves elaborate plastic surgery, a man trying to grift his way into a fortune and a woman succumbing to a “Vertigo”-like transformation. It has a central premise that is beyond preposterous — the kind of deal that can be distractingly unrealistic to a certain type of viewer. And yet it never feels like a genre piece, and it never feels like a mere movie mash-up — “Seconds” meets “Black Books.” It plays like its own thing, which is to say a moody but clinical study of some truly uncomfortable ideas, and revolving around the Holocaust on top of that. It doesn’t just trick you into accepting its tall tale as the real deal; it runs deeper and more disturbing than that.
Based on Hubert Monteilhet’s novel “Return from the Ashes,” which also inspired a 1965 film with Maximilian Schell, it revolves around Nelly, a disfigured concentration camp survivor (Nina Hoss) who finds herself obsessed with finding her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), even though he may have been the one who turned her in to the Nazis. But she can’t help herself, so much so that when she finds him she submits to his unusual demands. He thinks she almost looks like his wife, who he presumes is dead; if she was alive he would be able to get his hands on her family riches. And so Nelly lets Johnny essentially turn her into herself, because he evidently doesn’t recognize her voice, her body movement, her handwriting or any of the other clear giveaways.
Johnny’s dramatic thickness has been a roadblock for some, but as the critic Sam Adams has argued, it’s a key part of what “Phoenix” is really trying to do. The setting is the dodgy period in Berlin immediately after WWII, when the city was arguably not as destroyed as the German psyche, with denizens left to explain why many of them had let what happened happen. Johnny is a Gentile who once tried to protect his Jewish wife, only to cave in. He was rewarded with survival, but also damned to a thankless job in one of the American sector’s trashy nightclubs, which looks eerily like the wild Weimar Republic days before Hitler took over. When Nelly re-enters his life, it’s not that he doesn’t notice the similarities; it’s that he chooses not to, like someone who deludes him or herself into denying the obvious because it’s too painful. Like the other good Germans who still acquiesced to Nazi powers for self-preservation, he simply would rather not talk about his guilt, because talking about it is opening a can of worms best left contained.
Even without that explanation, “Phoenix” would still be a seductive, tantalizing film. The director is Christian Petzold, who makes detached, stolidly paced and shot studies of the deeply unpleasant. He once, with “Jerichow,” turned James M. Cain’s potboiler “The Postman Always Rings Twice” into the stark drama it at its heart is. Lately he’s been diving into his nation’s checkered history, including the East German-set “Barbara,” which also featured a haunting turn from Hoss, largely played over her expressive face.
Here he tries for something both succinct and ambitious, combining naturalism and the quasi-fantastical into an assured, confident dirge. Nelly is at first a ghost, skulking, with a new face, about a world overturned, trailing her old beloved unnoticed. Her gradual makeover recalls “Vertigo,” another film built on a premise that strains credibility, but here with a domineering male who’s going out of his way to seem more cruel than he really is, not a nice guy letting loose his psychosis. (Zehrfeld, with a matinee idol mustache, does the chilling inverse of the puppydog admirer he played so sweetly in “Barbara.”) “Phoenix” too has a sickening dread that escalates as it trods along. But it’s still its own thing — old parts repurposed into something unique and unnerving, building to what amounts to a mic drop for the ages.