The Current Debate: Christian Petzold’s "Phoenix"

A new weekly column connects the dots between great writing about a topic in a wider film conversation. This week: a post-war mystery.
Jacob Paul
The Criterion Collection adds to its handful of contemporary releases this week with Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, a film that has received near-universal acclaim since its 2014 premiere at TIFF, despite a common caveat that its story conceit is exceedingly implausible. Perhaps, as Justin Chang puts it at Variety, “in a movie of exacting subtlety, it sometimes takes the baldest of contrivances to cut straight to the heart of the matter.” He goes on:
“World War II has just ended, and Nelly Lenz, a Jewish singer and an Auschwitz survivor, is about to undergo reconstructive surgery after a disfiguring gunshot wound. When she is later reunited with Johnny, the faithless husband who betrayed her to the Nazis to save his own skin, he fails to recognize who she is. Still, he discerns enough of a resemblance to propose a lowly scheme: Nelly — or Esther, as she calls herself — will pass herself off as his presumed-dead wife so they can collect her inheritance.”
Unbelievable, but then again, what you believe may sometimes depend on your points of reference, as James Lattimer points out at Slant:
“If this melodramatic setup sounds implausible to the point of incredulity, that's probably because it is an exercise in the sort of willing suspension of disbelief that cinema itself is built on. For as Petzold repeatedly demonstrates, this story isn't beholden to the laws of reality, but rather unfolds in an imaginary realm pieced together from cinematic references, a place where Nazi-era actresses Zarah Leander and Kristina Söderbaum form the inspiration for Nelly's new face, counting to 10 is something you learn from Lang's Women in the Moon, and the ruins of Berlin never feel like anything other than an endless stage set. These direct allusions are echoed by countless indirect ones: Scottie's grooming of Judy in Hitchcock's Vertigo, the bandaged Christiane of Franju's Eyes Without a Face, the entire German ‘Trümmerfilm’ genre.”
Phoenix is a beautiful film regardless of the viewer’s interest in recognizing its antecedents, but the allusions help to delicately complicate a broader interest in modes of construction and reconstruction—especially how survivors of war and genocide might reassemble images of themselves and the world, per Jonathan Murray at Cineaste:
“Each of the film’s central characters is given space to embody radically different responses to the historical project of reconstruction, and it is notable that each approach comes with its own particular form of injury and impossibility in tow.

Reconstruction as competing forms of rejection (Lene), reanimation (Nelly), and revision (Johnny) are variously explored and found wanting in different ways as Phoenix’s narrative unfolds.”
The exceptional feature of this exercise is that it feels like a natural part of the story, rather than an intellectual distortion. As Adam Nayman writes at Cinema Scope, that’s a credit to both Petzold and to the film’s co-writer, Harun Farocki:
“What’s remarkable about Phoenix is how its Farockian didacticism—the fact that Nelly would rather try to reclaim her place and her identity in a German society that tried to exterminate her rather than go with Lene to settle in Palestine—is blended into its drama so that it becomes a film of ideas that is also a film of emotions.”
The “film of emotions” is largely the product of superb lead performances: by Ronald Zehrfeld, as Johnny, and by Nina Hoss, as Nelly. The performances surely stand out in part because, for a period film, there’s something extraordinarily spare about Phoenix’s production design. This economy was hard-won: Petzold told Nayman about a plan to begin the film with a scene at the liberation of a concentration camp—a plan that wasn’t scrapped until after it had been expensively carried out. Hoss elaborated in another interview with Nayman at the A.V. Club last week:
“NH: Adorno said you can’t ever show pictures of Auschwitz, or the victims, and you can’t re-create the concentration camps, like Schindler’s List. Especially not as a German. This is in our heads. It’s fake, but this is so much bigger than fake. It’s morally untouchable. You have to find an artistic way of showing it, without re-making it.”
This tension, the task of representing what cannot be represented, seems to color every detail of the film. It also bears a link to the film’s use of allusion, as one of Petzold’s comments in an interview with the Notebook last year began to suggest:
“It’s like as if the cinema is the memory of our world. It’s not paintings or literature or theatre; for me the last 100 years, it’s cinema.”
It’s tempting, in a way, to read these comments as tidily distinguishing cinema’s capacity to confront the morally untouchable, but it may be more accurate to say that Phoenix collapses the differences between reality and cinema. The various attitudes of its characters toward reconstruction amount to rival forms of image-making, and Johnny’s blindness to the real Nelly, as he directs her to become his image of Nelly, offers an especially clear—and not entirely generous—parallel to cinematic image-making. But Petzold’s film is not, ultimately, unsympathetic: it comes from wanting to understand, rather than condemn, the difficulty of coming face to face with a truth too difficult to know.

The Current Debate is a weekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.


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