After Barbara (2012), in which director Christian Petzold offered an account of East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, his latest feature film, Phoenix (2014) takes its inspiration from another key episode in German history, namely that of the Holocaust. In spite of the fact that this theme has been invading cinema screens for the past seven decades, the manner in which the German director approaches it is strikingly different from what we have been accustomed to.
Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) comes back to Berlin after the end of World War Two. She was disfigured during her internment in a concentration camp and her first priority is to undergo a surgery which is supposed to restore her former appearance as much as possible. However, this is only a step that has to be taken before her starting to search all over Berlin for her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), with whom she lost contact the day she was arrested by the Nazi authorities. Risking her life several times in dangerous quarters of the unfriendly postwar Berlin, she eventually discovers Johnny, who is now working as a waiter at an American club called Phoenix. Yet, their encounter is quite different from what she imagined, as Johnny is certain that Nelly could not have survived the atrocities of the Holocaust. Still, noticing a certain resemblance between Nelly and his allegedly dead wife, he approaches Nelly and proposes an imposturous plan, in which she is to play the role of his wife in order to help him enter the possession of Nelly’s inheritance.
Thus Nelly embarks upon the project in which she is expected to recreate her own past image, so that she can be recognized by their friends who are to meet her when she will supposedly come back from the concentration camp. Johnny’s fear that his fraud may de discovered makes him resort to a ridiculous plan, in which Nelly is to arrive at the station dressed in Parisian fashion, looking exactly like before the war. At her insistence that this is not the authentic image of the way in which former camp laborers come back, he responds: You’ve seen the returnees. All the burnt wounds and shot-up faces! No one looks at them. Everyone avoids them. But we want them to look at you and say, it’s Nelly! Nelly made it! She’s back! She’s wearing a breezy dress and nice shoes because she’s so glad. It’s this that’ll get us what we want.
Despite the script’s constant references to the past, there is not even a single flashback in the entire movie and, quite interestingly, this does not hinder the viewer from connecting with the main character. Quite the contrary, being confronted with Nelly’s image, while she draws a picture of the camp during an oral recollection, triggers an emotional response which could not have been achieved by presenting the image as such, no matter how masterful the shot would have been. But Petzold settles for nothing less than one of the most powerful scenes in the movie when he gets Nina Hoss shuddering at and stammering out the memory that she apparently relives during her monologue: Like how we sat on a beam, naked and… went through the clothing of those who had just arrived while the Kapos stood around us. We had to check for banknotes, or jewels they’d hidden. And then this…girl, this girl… looks at me. She looks at me. This girl looks as me… She’s dressed in her mother’s dress.
In Deleuze’s terms, the close-up of Nelly’s face creates an affection-image. However, by being forced to look at the involuntary jerks of her hands in her constant attempt to cover her face (is she doing it because she cannot come to terms with her new appearance and implicitly with her new identity?), we feel that there is more to this scene than a mere reliving of the past. Despite the successful aesthetic surgery she has undergone, not all the marks of the past have been erased. Her face turns into a crystal that reflects both the past and the present. What Petzold obtains is an affection-image that functions as a time-image. This technique of rendering past experiences without the aid of any flashbacks reminds of another film that deals with memory, identity and trauma, and whose auteur turned affection-images into his signature: Ingmar Bergman’s Persona.
Johnny’s acting like a movie director who struggles to create a plot lacking authenticity may be read as a mark of the movie’s reflexivity and even as a sign that Petzold mocks cinema’s attempt at creating perfect illusions of reality. This is not unusual for the German director, who used in Barbara (2012) Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp in order to bring up metacinematic issues in the same ironical, postmodern vein. However, a dishonest director like Johnny always neglects a tiny aspect and it is precisely this that will ruin his oeuvre. Do not expect extravagant, Hollywoodian endings, be prepared, instead, for one of the most powerful and memorable endings you’ve watched so far, which will leave you astounded.