In an age of cinema saturated with heroic and near-apocalyptic depictions of World War II, it’s too rare an occurrence that a film tries to capture the ambiguity of the reconstruction that followed.
This reconstruction included the international outcry for reparations, widespread moral introspection and the Allies’ obligation to mend the Axis. These conflicting emotions were especially true for the Jewish-German populace, many of whom longed to return to their lives in the very country that oppressed them.
Phoenix, the latest film from writer/director Christian Petzold, adopts this particular topic by telling the story of a twisted extreme. That extreme case is Nelly, a survivor of the concentration camps who uses her supposed death and surgically altered looks to reconnect with her husband under an assumed identity.
The premise may lead you to believe that Nelly is a kind of femme-fatale, a spider woman escaped from the black and white of film noir into an oddly romantic thriller. This is, thankfully, not the case.
Most who endured the horror of the concentration camps did not leave stronger for it, our protagonist reminds us constantly. Her movements are timid and awkward; her walk is especially deliberate. The slow pace of the film is often on her account, as she tries to muster up the courage to navigate a crowd or make an inquiry to a stranger.
Phoenix manages to be as disturbing and provocative as any holocaust film I’ve seen, and it does so -rather uniquely- through implication. Maybe the most explicit example of this occurs when a cocky allied soldier orders her to remove her bandages. The camera does not show us her fresh scars, mangled flesh, or exposed bone. Instead it cuts to an exterior shot, provoking in the viewer far worse images than any amount of makeup or special effects could produce.
The film quickly progresses into a darkly romantic drama, with situations that are reminiscent of 1958’s Vertigo. Both films feature men reinventing their fairer counterparts who, against their better judgment, cooperate willingly. Both feature a lover’s betrayal and their partner’s innocent, ignorant denial of such. Finally, both use a premise of mystery and frankly unbelievable circumstance to exemplify the lengths people will go to meet the expectations of those with which they are infatuated.
Phoenix drips with atmosphere and sacrifices historical accuracy for none of it. The whole thing rings out as a turning-point in history. Stray Allied soldiers gather in clubs to lust after German girls and widows alike. Citizens casually walk the streets of crumbled, burned-out homes. Nelly’s fellow Jew and long-time confidant Lene talks of pilgrimage to Palestine, where their faith can find sanctuary and undergo cultural revival.
Nelly, in turn, reflects much of the Jewish post-war hardships. She seeks a reconnection to her old family and friends, but in her photos we see each marked as dead (a cross above their head) or as a Nazi (their face circled harshly). She wants to forgive her tormentors so as to repress her torment.
The film immerses us in Nelly’s tragedy and her desires. I questioned as many times as Nelly what her best course of action would be and, like her, wrestled with my conclusions. Phoenix is nothing short of a masterpiece for its ability to make the audience as driven and illogical as its characters, the way more dramas should be.