From Germany comes Christian Petzold's "Phoenix," a heartbreaking story and an absorbing drama of suspense. Based on a novel by Hubert Monteilhet, its 98 minutes are driven by something we know, and which the heel of the movie does not: we wonder what he will do when--if--he discovers the secret. The heel's name is Johnny. As played by Ronald Zehrfeld, he is more pathetic than evil. Banal, even: a mediocre man. He tells a woman he meets in a nightclub in postwar Berlin, flatly, that his wife is dead. (It's understood that she was Jewish, and that she died in the camps.) He goes on to tell her he has a plan: you will impersonate her. Our story will be that you survived the camp and, risen from the ashes, you have returned. Together we will claim her inheritance. (Which would be substantial, in that it's everything left to her by all her family members who died in the Holocaust.)
But here is the twist: like Scottie in Hitchcock's "Vertigo," a movie Petzold has cited as an inspiration for "Phoenix," Johnny does not realize that the woman he is shaping and the "dead" woman are one and the same person.
The woman is Nelly (Nina Hoss). Before the war she was a beautiful nightclub singer, a chanteuse, and her husband Johnny was the pianist who accompanied her. Captured by the Nazis, shot and left for dead at Auschwitz, she survived, but her face was destroyed. As the film begins she is given a new face by a reconstructive surgeon. Her friend Lena (Nina Kunzendorf) wants to take her away, to Israel, but Nelly refuses. She still yearns to be reunited with Johnny, even after Lena drops a bombshell: it was Johnny who turned her in. She won't--can't--believe it, and at night she wanders through the rubble of the city, looking for him. It's a dangerous place, desperate, cruel, full of people doing whatever it takes to survive. She discovers Johnny in the American sector, now a dishwasher at a nightclub called the Phoenix, rendered by Petzold's usual cinematographer, Hans Fromm, in a seedy red light more washed out than the deep, deep red lounge in "Vertigo." Though he does not recognize her, she catches his eye. There's something about her that makes him think she could pull off the plan.
Nelly is, of course, good at playing the role of herself, almost too good. She can mimic Nelly's handwriting uncannily. Johnny is at first suspicious, then incredulous: it seems too good to be true, but how can he deny what his eyes tell him?
As Nelly, shattered and put back together, Nina Hoss uses body language to speak volumes of a trauma that is unspeakable. Her black eyes telegraph hyper-vigilance and constant alarm. She shuffles and drags herself like a wounded bird. Her head quivers and wobbles. Hoss's approach is akin to that of Petzold, in the way that a few well-chosen details make the horror--indeed the enormity--of the Holocaust fresh and real, in a way that a less individual, less personal approach might not have. I think of the moment late in the film when we get just a quick glimpse of the rathole in which Nelly hid, a crawlspace in a houseboat with just some bedsprings and a bit of bread crust on the floor.
We come to the heartbreak that "Phoenix" and "Vertigo" share, as Johnny begins to rehearse Nelly's return, to change her makeup and hair, to mold her into the image of the "dead" woman. Of Scottie and Judy in "Vertigo," Roger Ebert wrote, "He cares nothing about the clay he is molding. He would gladly sacrifice her on the altar of his dreams." Like Judy in that earlier film, Nelly participates in the charade not for money, but to please Johnny. Ebert goes on, "Judy realizes that Scottie is indifferent to her as a person and sees her as an object. Because she loves him, she accepts this." Like Judy, Nelly allows herself to be remade by a man who does not love her. In both films, the true subject is a woman's sacrifice for love.
Unlike Scottie in "Vertigo," however, Johnny is missing any guilty passion. In fact, he doesn't seem visited by guilt at all. That's somehow the worst of it. Everyone left standing in postwar Berlin likely did something shameful to survive, and no one wants to face it. You don't know who turned you in. It could have been a neighbor, a friend. There is a memorable moment when, quivering, Nelly insists to Johnny that there is a hole in their plan: what will I say, she asks, when someone asks me about my experience in the camps? Surely, she insists, someone will want to know. Johnny seems baffled. No one will ask, he finally says.
After the film is over (and I will not divulge anything about its remarkable final scene), you may find yourself thinking about all the chances Nelly gave Johnny to see the truth, all the hints. The way she stares at him, searching his eyes. She is looking for what she hopes to find there, yes, but also imploring him to really look into her eyes, to recognize them as Nelly's. But did he ever really bother to look? And what would he have seen there, if he had? Might not he have seen more pain than the human mind can bear?
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)