Monday, October 12, 2015

Returned to Life

Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Hoss in Phoenix

One of the reasons that film noir has persisted in the cultural massmind is because films noir are so often epistemological. Questions of "who am I?" or "what really happened" or even "what is real?" or "what is identity?" litter films like Somewhere in the Night and No Man of Her Own and Dark Passage and Hollow Triumph. As film noir became self-aware in the late 1950s and onward, this tendency has intensified. Contemporary film noir is as apt to be a mind fuck as it is to be a suspense thriller or a crime story. That's certainly the case with Phoenix (2015, directed by Christian Petzold), a film in which identity is shifty and endlessly mutable.

Set in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Phoenix follows Nelly Lenz, a concentration camp survivor who has been badly disfigured by her experiences. Her friend, Lene, returns her to the world, where her face is reconstructed. She wants her face to look exactly as it once did, but her surgeon finds this impossible. When she awakens and recovers, she no longer looks like herself, and consequently no longer feels like herself. Nelly is the heir to her community's fortune and is very wealthy. Lene wants the both of them to move to Palestine, where their fortune would be used to found a Jewish state, but Nelly has other ideas. She wants to find her husband, to Lene's discomfort. Lene knows that Johnny Lenz--now going by Johannes--divorced Jelly a day before she was taken by the Gestapo, that it was he who denounced her. Nevertheless, Nellly pursues him, refusing to believe that her Johnny would betray her. Johnny doesn't recognize the new her, but he does see someone he can remake in his "dead" wife's image. Johnny is after her inheritance. Nelly goes along with his scheme, both because her love for him is foolishly blind, and also because she wants to see for herself if he could betray her...

The performances in Phoenix are brilliant. Both Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld, Nelly and Johnny respectively, have worked with director Christian Petzold before, and their rapport with the director's aims is clear to see in every scene. Hoss in particular is tasked with playing both foolish love and dawning awareness of the world at the same time. She walks this highwire without misstep. It's a thing to see. Petzold knows how to place these two in opposition. Notice how many shots in the film subvert the male gaze or even the female gaze by placing Hoss and Zehrfeld in positions that obscure the other and place the characters as obstacles in each other's way. It's a tricky dance between points of view.

Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Hoss in Phoenix

Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld in Phoenix

The craft of the film is impeccable, too, recreating post-war Berlin with an economy of images that simultaneously give hints of a film noir universe. Neon-lit clubs exist next to bombed-out rubble. Johnny lives in a hole, while Nelly's newfound wealth puts her into a swanky apartment. There's a sense of the high and the low here, and in this, there's a sense of the victims winning and the oppressors losing, which in another film would be risible. Here, it makes no difference. Lene still kills herself. Nelly still has no identity to fill the void of her life. Johnny is still a predator. Wealth, in this film, is a Maguffin.


Phoenix is a film that views identity both as a construction and as life itself. This film's obvious touchstone is Vertigo, which it cleverly subverts by placing its heroine in the role of a woman being remade in the image of a dead woman. In Vertigo, this was a meditation on fantasy and obsession. In this film, it's something else. In the early parts of the film, Nelly wanders through post-War Berlin like a ghost. She's depressed, and unhitched from her past because she has a new face and the annihilating experience of Auschwitz behind her. This part of the film is a reminder that the darkness of film noir is in part linked to the psychic trauma of World War II and the Holocaust (it's not for nothing that many of the major directors of films noir were German ex-patriots). The war strips Nelly of her identity, her face, her husband, everything that anchors her to the world. She begins as an annihilated person, only to be returned to her identity, her face, and her husband through Johnny's machinations. At the end of the movie, she reasserts her own reality in the world, and consequently demolishes Johnny's reality. The way this ends is deliciously ambiguous. It doesn't need to punctuate its narrative with a scene of violence or some curtain-pulling exegesis. It ends at precisely the right place, with the expression on Johnny's face as he realizes he's screwed. This is one of the film's most satisfying miracles.

Johnny is a character with a shifty identity, too. Loving husband? Nazi collaborator? Humble barista? Grifter? Nelly passes herself off as "Esther", but she's not alone in using multiple names. Johnny and Johannes are seemingly two different people, at least in Nelly's slowly awakening eyes. There's a divergence in how Nelly and Johnny perceive each other. The more Johnny remakes her, the more he seems to see her true identity, but the more she lets him remake her, the less of her husband she recognizes.

Nelly is a case study in denial as self-defense mechanism. She's been through unimaginable horrors. Her attachment to Johnny throughout the film seems pathetic on its face, but how does one cope with the kind of betrayal Johnny represents? Either she clings to her delusions, her foolish love for her husband, or else be completely destroyed. Significantly, when Lene's desire to emigrate to Palestine never materializes, her own coping mechanism is denied her and she destroys herself. This is the alternative for Nelly, which makes her foolishness even in the face of hard evidence comprehensible. But does she cling to this to the bitter end? I wonder. The ending, again, is ambiguous on this point. There's a hint that Nelly continues her masquerade as a means of exacting revenge, with revenge standing in for a resurrection of the status quo of her marriage. But there's enough doubt, too. Is her revelation at the end of the film meant as revenge? Or is it meant as a consummation, with her resurrection at the hands of her husband complete, even as it annihilates Johnny's plans for the future. I couldn't tell you. Again, the film ends in the perfect spot, leaving the viewer with so many more questions than answers.

I describe Phoenix as haunting, and I think that's exactly right. It's a film inhabited by ghosts. None of the characters really survived the War, they wander through this film grasping for a life that was once theirs, but which is now forever out of reach. If Nelly is able to resurrect her life through the force of her mad love for her husband, it comes at a cost. Whether she manages the trick at all is debatable, given that the tattoo on her arm will forever chain her to the land of the dead.

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