by Nicholas Jahr
Discussed in this article: Phoenix, a film by Christian Petzold. IFC Films/Sundance Selects, 2014, 98 minutes.
FACES DRAPED in bandages and shadows, mistaken identities and midnight doppelgangers, silhouettes and reflections, most of the soundtrack a diegetic refrain: this is all promising tinder, but Phoenix never quite bursts into illuminating flame.
Nelly Lentz stumbles out of the smoldering embers of Nazi Germany. She’s survived arrest, the lager, the bullet to the head intended to end her life. Her face is a ruin of raw flesh and shattered bone swathed in bandages. Her friend Lena sat it all out in Switzerland and has returned to facilitate her rebirth: reconstructive surgery followed by a flight to a new home in Haifa or Tel Aviv. “I’m not a Jew,” Nelly protests. “You are whether you like it or not,” Lena insists. “They tried to kill you.”
Who “they” are is one of Phoenix and Nelly’s main concerns: is it the couple who run the resort where she was in hiding? Her German friends? Her husband? (Could they all be counted among Hitler’s willing executioners?) Nelly seeks him out, only to find he no longer recognizes her. But he will train her to impersonate herself in order to collect her family’s fortune. Invocations of Vertigo are obligatory. Hitchcock has Jimmy Stewart obsessively trying to make one woman into another; Petzold has Ronald Zehrfeld manically refusing to admit the woman staring him in the face is who she appears to be. He is driven by guilt and desperation and denial, and to the extent his ‘ruse’ is successful it reveals the same in everyone else.
Petzold expresses what may be an admirable commitment to German culpability, to the crime that cannot be forgiven, the wound that cannot be healed. At the same time, this remorselessly remorseful vision bars any possibility of reconciliation. Nelly is now a Jew, not a German; she can never be German again. To the extent that the past can be reconstructed, the damage healed, this is a pyrrhic effort: it only drives Nelly and her husband apart, there can be no reconciliation after atrocity. As satisfying as this might be psychologically, this fatalism rests uncomfortably with a Germany that today is once again struggling to embrace the other.
That conclusion seems facile, cowering before the contradictions, particularly after the rich, allusive elements Petzold puts in play in the beginning. With the possible exception of a fascinating passage midway through, the film is probably simpler than it first appears. There are moments that feel like Petzold is engaged less in an organic development of his scenario and more in checking generic boxes (reflection in a cracked mirror in the rubble of your old home? Check.). It’s tempting to dismiss the film for shedding its complications… until the climax captures the tragedy of 20th century Germany in a single song.