A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
The creature known as the phoenix has been a staple of mythology and legend for thousands of years. Famed for its ability to die and regenerate from its own ashes, the symbolic value of the phoenix was, in some senses, endless. Indeed, it became a royal bird during the era of ancient civilizations, representing kingdoms that would withstand any onslaught to simply rise back up from their ashes. As the postmodern map of Europe and the Mediterranean Basin would prove, they did not in an irony of reality, but the symbolic value of the phoenix still remained and could also transcend towards the individual. In Christian Petzold’s fantastic film of the same name, the word “phoenix” takes on several literal and metaphorical connotations throughout its one hour and thirty-eight minutes. There’s the nightclub Phoenix, representing a blindingly bright sign of hopeful rebirth that nevertheless hides a plethora of ugliness within it. There’s Berlin in 1945, bombed to smithereens, waiting to see if it could be reborn once more into an edifice. More than its physical reconstruction, there’s the soul of Berlin, wondering if it could possibly regenerate from the sheer evil of the ashes it gave birth to. There’s the fate of the Jewish people, many of whom feel that their only chance at a rebirth would be to go far, far away to the land of Palestine and forge a nation for themselves. Then there’s Nelly herself, disfigured in the camps with her entire family dead and gone. She’s given a new face and her friend Lene tells her that it is a beautiful one, but Nelly isn’t concerned about the beauty of her new visage. She’s terrified that she could no longer be recognized, that she has been reborn but would never be able to take flight.
The theme of identity is strong throughout Phoenix, beginning most ostensibly with Nelly’s fears of not being identifiable by her friend and the only man she had considered family who was still alive. She walks quietly through the ruined rubbles of what she had previously called home, stumbling upon two broken pieces of glass. Nelly looks upon her reflection briefly, caressing the sides of her face as her reflection, as if in bold, looked right back at her, transfixed. She is terrified and runs back to Lene’s car, asking her in a broken voice if she would be able to recognize her. In asking that question, Nelly is harkening to her past as well, wondering if her husband Johnny, if still alive, would be able to recognize her as well or if he would simply see her and then walk away as if an ephemeral shadow had confronted him. Lene reveals that she believes Johnny betrayed her, by simple virtue of having been arrested two days before her, interrogated, and then released right before Nelly herself was incarcerated. To top that off, she had seen him in an office where it had become clear that he was after the money Nelly was set to receive on account of her family’s deaths. It’s another identity for Nelly to confront: the dichotomy of the identity of the man she loved and lived with and the reality Lene is presenting to her of a man whose identity is comprised of that man and one who was willing to sell out his Jewish wife to the Nazis and then try to profit off of her death. It’s a betrayal of astounding magnitude and it’s a betrayal Nelly can’t bring herself to comprehend.
It is a note of irony perhaps that that very mystery that prevent Nelly’s rebirth from truly happening bears fruit in the Phoenix night club, where Johnny is working under his real name Johannes. As Nelly finds him, her face floods with relief, her breath easing. Yet when she first calls out to him and he doesn’t recognize her, that very face begins to crumble from the fear she had expressed to Lene outside her home. The idea that Johnny wouldn’t recognize her was painful enough but to see it occur before her very eyes seemed to cause her more pain than the potential truth of Johannes’s betrayal. There at least a bit of hope existed. He notices her wandering about the club afterwards and falls under the belief that she’s looking for work. In the darkened abysses of the war-torn streets of Berlin, he gives her a proposition. He believes his wife to be dead but he has no proof of her demise and without any proof, he can’t garner any of the inheritance her family left behind. This woman in front of him named Esther just so happens to resemble his late wife quite a bit and if she agreed to impersonate Nelly, the two would then be able to split the forty thousand dollars between themselves. Nelly agrees but each step she takes after is filled with a terror, a terror that she might be found before she could ascertain the truth and the terror that what Lene told her was true and another part of her identity would waste away into the dust. Phoenix is an incredibly powerful experience of witnessing a woman’s emotional odyssey, helmed by an excellent script, Petzold’s incredibly artful direction, and the subtlety of a truly gifted team of artists. Phoenix’s greatest strength, however, is Nina Hoss’s incredible performance. Hoss effortlessly embodies one transition to the next, becoming multiple individuals yet remaining Nelly at her core. The scene where she describes briefly her horrors in the concentration camp is one of the year’s most affecting sequences, her silence speaking as many volumes as the verbiage she espoused. Tony Bennett’s “Speak Low” (a perfect, subtle choice of song for the film) echoes throughout the air in Hoss’s mesmerizing voice as the film begins to close, the final two lyrics taking the film to its pitch perfect ending. The curtains descend and everything ends, but the spirit of the phoenix remains entrenched.
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Directed by: Christian Petzold
Produced by: Florian Koerner von Gustorf, Michael Weber
Written by: Christian Petzold, Harun Farocki
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Michael Maertens
Music by: Stefan Will
Cinematography: Hans Fromm
Edited by: Bettina Böhler
Production Company: Schramm Film Koerner & Weber, Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR), Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), Arte, Tempus
Distributed by: http://www.imdb.com/company/co0284618?ref_=ttco_co_14
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Dates: September 25, 2014 (Germany), July 24, 2015 (United States)
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