The thing you’ve been searching for your whole life has been staring you straight in the face. Or at least, there’s a similar lesson to be taken from Phoenix, the astonishing new film from Christian Petzold that frequently makes jaw-dropping observations on human nature.
The Second World War has come to an end, but not without leaving its scars first; Nina Hoss plays Nelly, who has survived a Nazi concentration camp only to return home with severe facial disfigurement. Following reconstruction surgery that leaves only a faint resemblance to her former self, she struggles with reintegrating into society – but when she spots Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), her husband in her previous life, working in a nearby bar, a glimmer of hope is awoken in her. But things are never that simple in Petzold’s world; Johnny seemingly doesn’t recognise his wife, who he may – or may not – have sold out to the Nazis. But he decides this new woman before his eyes will be a decent stand-in for her; in order to free up some money from the bank, Nelly will slowly turn herself into Johnny’s memory of his wife. Like a version of Vertigo that’s far more painful to watch, she’ll dress the same as her, dye her hair to match hers – and make the hazy memory of herself coalesce, finally, into her current self.
The incredible nature of this plot – and we mean ‘incredible’ in the most literal reading you can make of that word – may be enough to turn you away at the door. But through an effortless blend of screenplay, directing, and performance, Phoenix becomes a near-transcendent rumination on some warped version of cognitive dissonance; as uncomfortable it is to watch the ever-graceful Nelly acquiesce into a new life that already belonged to her, Nina Hoss makes her fifth collaboration with Petzold her greatest yet by bridging the huge gap of disbelief we might experience toward the film’s premise. What Phoenix is really about goes deeper than its mere surface, an ever-shifting, dreamlike mirror in the ethereal night-set scenes. Johnny’s inability to see the truth that is staring straight back at him with loving eyes, welling with forgiveness, is one we can all recognise.
Petzold’s previous film, Barbara – also starring Hoss – was an excellent character piece set in ‘80s Germany, with an overbearing air that WWII was very much still in the public consciousness. And while that film may have been slightly more rigorous in its narrative momentum, Phoenix – despite its infrequent lags in tension – exudes a feeling that the grief is much closer; what happened in those concentration camps was too awful for words. Nelly’s greatest loss was of herself; in trying to claim that back, her struggle is awe-inspiring to witness, and there’s a delicate sense of triumph, no matter how compromised, that’s to be found in the movie’s gut-bustingly powerful final scene, a pay-off that’ll end up as one of this year’s most psychologically complex, tear-jerkingly moving sequences. Phoenix is an incredibly articulate statement on the minds of those affected by a great trauma, and we’re left with some degree of understanding, greater than we had before, of what that was like.