“A new face can be an advantage.” In Phoenix, the 2015 film of the year, that could be so for Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss, in the female performance of the year), who returns to her native, war-scarred Germany in a tense border exchange completely bandaged from a facial reconstructive procedure. At that moment, however, those are hardly reassuring words to the horrified holocaust survivor, not will it mask the bitter disappointment that washes over her when those bandages are removed and she comes face to face with the hideous trauma of her past, present, and future. That includes not only the personal, but those of the similarly scarred nation that betrayed her kind in the name of national pride. Like so many, she has lost not only her former life but her entire family; “I no longer exist,” she states.
Nelly could literally pick through the streets of ruined Berlin like the dogs, or the newfound homeless, but instead wanders it like a pariah, with her sunken eyes and stricken, hallowed countenance and gaze, in search of a missing husband, Johnny. Amid the haunting desolation of the ravaged, burnt-out capital city and the desperate cruelty played out on a daily basis by her unconscionable, acutely impoverished peers, I suppose it’s only human to have a task at hand, a mission, a reason to life. Her protectorate, Lena (German Film Award winner Nina Kunzendorf, Woman in Gold), entreats her to abandon the search on account of her husband’s alleged dubious character, and to retreat with her to Haifa, Tel Aviv, or Palestine to start a new life amid the burgeoning Jewish state with Nelly’s inherited wealth. No dice; the streets of postwar Berlin may not be suitable for a fragile single woman, but the determined Nelly is not ready to abandon her homeland on account of the Nazis. Besides, she has nothing else to lose; not even her face is hers anymore.
That face is pivotal, of course, to the rest of the film. When Nelly finally does track down Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) busing dishes at a niteclub called Phoenix where the two used to perform—Nelly as a singer, her husband as a musician—he doesn’t even recognize her. He does see enough of a likeness, however, to seize an opportunity: he can make over the newfound stranger, who he initially insists, “remind[s him] of a woman who wasn’t worth much,” into his former wife, whom he presumes to be dead, to collect on her inheritance. Not really given the chance to protest her mistaken identity, nor too insistent to declare it to be otherwise, Nelly goes along with the ruse, figuring it will give her a chance to get to know her husband again. Under the protestations of Lena, Johnny—Johannes, really—whisks Esther, as she introduced herself to him, into his basement flat where she’s kept until wraps until she’s ready for her public unveiling, as if she were a golem or a sculpture. Throughout the ordeal, Nelly maintains a certain feminine submission to her husband’s sometimes brutish treatment and manipulations of her appearance and bearing—he has, after all, a lot riding on her successful transformation. Even as this is accomplished, and Esther more closely becomes Nelly in her husband’s eyes, Nelly still strives to be recognized by him, finding it not only wounding but quite shocking that he doesn’t recognize her. A flashback perhaps illuminates why he is so insistent upon her presumed death, but he’s not the only one somnambulating in deep psychological denial, and, at any rate, Nelly doesn’t have the benefit of flashback. She does, however, begin to put the pieces together of her broken former life with the help of Lena, who will succumb to her own fraught circumstances, after she, like so many others, was taken away.
In that, Phoenix, based with significant alterations on Hubert Monteilhet 1961 Le Retour des Cendres (The Return from the Ashes), including moving the novel from its French setting—and more closely adapted in 1965 by Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone director J. Lee Thompson starring Ingrid Thulin and Maximilian Schell—is a tight depiction of individual suffering amid historic social turmoil and upheaval. It’s another essential collaboration between director/coscreenwriter Christian Petzold and Hoss, who previously came together in 2012 on Barbara, which also costarred Zehrfeld and was similarly cowritten by Harun Farocki, who passed through the ashes less than 40 days before this film premiered at Toronto in September 2014. Petzold brings a taut, energetic process to the production, imbuing the nicely conceived and constructed set pieces with a tense, noirish atmosphere; Nelly’s silhouetted shadow against the white walls of Johnny’s underground bunker is unmistakable, and the sudden appearance of a gun in an open suitcase is intimately portending. It’s as if David Cronenberg got a hold of the material, but the film more personally evokes Fassbinder, not only Berlin Alexanderplatz, but also The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lili Marleen. Indeed, to say that Petzold and Hoss are the new Fassbinder and Hanna Schygulla of international cinema is not a stretch at all.
Hoss, who followed this film with a recurring role in Season Five of Homeland as a BRD agent and took second in the 2015 Village Voice Film Poll for her performance, ahead of Oscar nominees Brie Larson, Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, and Rooney Mara, precisely pervades Nelly’s/Esther’s haunted visage; her gaunt, withered look masks both an arch resilience and ultrafragile vulnerability. When Johnny brings Esther out into the light of day on a social retreat to see if she’ll pass muster with some old acquaintances before trying to pass her off on the German authorities for her fortune, Hoss takes her unsure, unsteady character to a more remote, taciturn, and unpredictable level. When she deliver’s another of the film’s moody, downbeat jazz standards—Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s “Speak Low”—to her companions, with Johnny accompanying her on piano, it’s not quite Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel—and Hoss is not quite a virtuosic chanteuse—but it has to be one of the most penetrating and heartbreaking performances and finales in the history of film. Her character’s ensuing exit into the afternoon garden light brings home Nelly’s titular transformation, and it’s so stunningly performed and exquisitely wrought, there’s not anything anyone, neither in the film nor in the audience, can do about it.
(Phoenix, the 2015 film of the year, is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new 2K digital transfer along with features, including a new conversation between Petzold and Hoss, a new interview with cinematographer and frequent Petzold collaborator Hans Fromm, a Making of documentary, a trailer, a new English subtitle translation, and new cover art. It is also available on Digital Download.)
© 2016 John Tyler/24 Hours