Most American films about World War 2 have a clear-cut divide between good and evil. Americans have the luxury of two massive aquatic barriers, which create and “us and them” dynamic between the soldiers and those they fought. Europeans and Japanese, particularly those Europeans in Axis countries, cannot rationalize their wartime behavior with such ease, and the films from those countries reflect that. Phoenix, a German postwar drama from director Christian Petzold, slowly enters a world of betrayal, love, and despair. Like last year’s terrific Ida and Petzold’s recent Barbara, here is a film that requires patience, yet concludes with quiet power, forcing us to reconsider the delicate mastery of what preceded it.
A stern German woman drives to a checkpoint where American soldiers are still checking passports. The woman’s passenger is unusual: bandages wrap her face, except for mouth and eye holes, so the American wants to see what’s under them. Petzold keeps the passenger off-camera, and instead we see the soldier’s reaction. He turns away from the passenger, with a mix of regret, empathy, and disgust. Throughout Phoenix, Petzold never goes with easy, obvious way of framing a shot. His subject is not World War 2 atrocities – the passenger is clearly a victim of them – but the ensuing psychological fallout. Using the framework of a love story and melodrama, he investigates cognitive dissonance and forgiveness, without ever passing judgment on characters who were given impossible choices.
The passenger is Nelly (Nina Hoss), and she’s driven by her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) to a hospital where she can undergo facial reconstruction surgery and convalesce. We finally see Nina’s face, and while she has black eyes from the procedure, she is still a beauty. Lene has plans for Nelly, who worked as a jazz singer before her arrest: Lene believes there is no place for Jews in Germany, so she wants them to relocate to Israel and rebuild there. Nelly wants nothing more than to reunite with her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who has her accompanist. A strange thing happens when Nelly finally encounters Johnny: he does not recognize her, and she does not correct his mistake. Johnny decides that this woman could pass as Nelly, so he creates an elaborate scheme in order to collect her inheritance. It is not even clear to Nelly why she plays along, except maybe to understand how he cannot see her, and figure out what exactly happened before her arrest.
Petzold spends a lot of time with Lene and Nelly before Johnny arrives, and the opening stretch is a character study where movement matters more than dialogue. The War has taught these characters to hide what they’re feeling, yet their body language betrays their secrets. Lene moves with brusque precision, as if the German air is a layer of filth she cannot wait to shed. In a choice that is key to Pheonix’s success, Nelly never once moves like a confident jazz singer: her shoulders are stilted and inward, so she moves without grace, only fear. Maybe that’s part of the reason Johnny cannot recognize her, except Petzold and co-writer Harun Farocki never bother with easy answers. Sometimes Johnny seems to see Nelly, and this game is the only way he can accept her back into his life. Sometimes Nelly acts too much like herself – a cruel irony Johnny cannot or will not understand – which only emboldens Nelly’s complex lie.
The emotions underlying Phoenix are complex, yet the storytelling is straightforward, which means Petzold requires a great deal from his actors. They give away so little, yet are so intriguing that we look harder, trying to understand them before they understand themselves. Lene drifts away from the action as Nelly ekes her way back into Johnny’s life, yet her hardline moral stance and Kunzendorf’s soft-spoken anger are what give the film its moral center. Zehrfeld and Hoss, on the other hand, feed off the dearth of chemistry between their characters. They never quite reach a point of comfort, which teases the idea that the love between Nelly and Johnny was genuine. In between these character moments, Petzold creates a post-war Berlin where culture and hope pushes through the rubble like a weed. Many shots and shadows recreate The Third Man, the ultimate postwar film, except Phoenix has the added benefit of history.
That sense of history is what informs the final minutes of Phoenix, which are both heartbreaking and inevitable. Johnny orchestrates a false narrative where he imagines his wife’s return from the camps, complete with cosmopolitan clothes, and Nelly plays the part. The reunion happens at a train station – arguably the most romantic setting in all melodrama – yet Petzold steadfastly refuses to let Nelly run on autopilot. Nelly’s wordless, haunting reactions to Johnny and Johnny’s friends, all of whom are not Jewish, is about rebuilding and guilt, not romance. Phoenix does not stop there: its final moments are a beautiful denouement, one where text and subtext conflate until innocence, the last luxury left, evaporates into the ether. Phoenix begins and ends with characters healing, albeit in different ways, and Petzold’s masterful filmmaking shows us who has longer, more painful road to recovery.