As you’d expect for a film set in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Phoenix is no walk in the park. But even though the plot is wildly removed from anything I've ever known, I really enjoyed Phoenix for its nuanced, thought-provoking exploration of how one woman seeks to cope with personal trauma and identity loss.
Phoenix opens with Jewish singer Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss, A Man Most Wanted, Homeland, Barbara) returning to Berlin in 1945, having survived the horrors of Auschwitz. Arriving home, she finds that all the markers of her former life and personal identity have been burned away; none of her family survived the Holocaust, her face is battered beyond recognition, and her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, Barbara) has abandoned her for dead.
Johnny lusts after the money Nelly inherited from her murdered Jewish relatives. But when Nelly’s face, her entire family, and her singing career have been lost, can she bring herself to abandon hope of rebuilding her marriage?
Engaging with a story of such immense personal loss might seem daunting, but I was really struck by director Christian Petzold’s (Barbara, Yella) ability to draw me into this tale about personal trauma without traumatising me. That requires subtlety and compassion, and here, Petzold delivered in spades. (I think, for example, of the stark contrast with Lars von Trier, whose films often deal with great suffering, but tend to leave me feeling as traumatised as their protagonists.)
For my money, Phoenix shows Petzold’s mastery of the art of cinematic storytelling. Everything in the film works in multiple layers, and I enjoyed the subtle way these layers overlapped and danced around each other. The mythical bird of the film’s title, for example, might refer to the movement to create a Jewish state from the ashes of the Holocaust. Or, the title could refer to Nelly’s personal struggle to rebuild her identity after facial reconstruction surgery left her looking like a distant relative rather than her old self.
Direction aside, credit for the success of Phoenix also goes to its cast, which delivered consistently excellent performances. Hoss’s portrayal of Nelly’s personal struggle was restrained, yet engaging and compelling. Her character’s retreat into a desperate stoicism didn’t leave me feeling distant or disengaged; instead, it drew me in and helped me to understand the extreme lengths Nelly would go to to get the recognition she craved.
For me, the immense challenges facing the protagonists in Phoenix brought up fascinating questions such as, what are the cues we use to define ourselves? Are our personal attributes most important, or is it our relationships, whether they are based on family, religion, ethnicity or something else? How do changes in our physical appearance affect our sense of self? And perhaps most importantly, how do we cope when different parts of our identity collide in seemingly irreconcilable ways?
I especially like that Petzold doesn’t try to tell the audience what to think. With sure-footed assistance from a cast that he knows well, he offers an intelligent, engaging treatment of this complex question that invites us to reflect on what it is we believe ourselves. Phoenix is a film that treats its audience with respect, shuns clichés and avoids simplistic answers to challenging questions.