Friday, July 24, 2015
Phoenix (2014) A Film by Christian Petzold
In Christian Petzold’s Holocaust drama Phoenix, dignity is a question of positioning within the expansive 2:35:1 cinema frame. Nelly (Nina Hoss), the film’s heroine, a concentration camp survivor requiring facial reconstruction surgery to reintegrate into the bombed-out wasteland of postwar Europe, is more or less kept in the center of Petzold’s compositions throughout, even when she’s on the move. When we meet her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may or may not have rat her out to the Nazis and who jumps at the opportunity for an inheritance when he finds this seeming doppelganger of his presumed-dead wife at a Berlin nightclub where he’s working, he’s charging left and right, the camera unable to neatly contain the movements of his brawny frame. This being a movie by Christian Petzold, who directs as if trying to curry all attention away from what the camera’s doing, such pictorial schemas don’t come right out and announce their presence. They’re ingrained in the thematics of the story to such a degree that there’s nothing to show off.
Nelly’s centrality in Petzold’s compositions is vital. Phoenix is set in a historical context in which consciousness of the death-shrouded past is paradoxically the key to progressing into the future. In her suicide letter, Nelly’s friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) puts this dynamic in existential terms, stating that her heart is with the dead and that she can’t go on with the living. Her point is that she’d rather die than live in a compromised world where her fellow Germans can’t acknowledge recent traumas, preferring instead to “live” in denial. Nelly lacks this firm stance, but her character arc is one of gradual realization, of a shifting of priorities from a longing to reclaim her pre-war comforts to an understanding that such recuperations can only be illusory after being subject to dehumanizing treatment.
Thus, Phoenix’s script is fundamentally didactic; at its core is a lecture on the dangers of historical repression. What’s remarkable about the film, though, is the ways in which it subsumes its point-making into visual drama, a subtly evolving interplay between appearances and motivations. After receiving her facial surgery, Nelly finds herself in a series of situations in which keeping up a stoic front is imperative—first as a matter of survival, then of submission, and finally of deception. It’s only in the bulldozer of a closing scene that she is able to emerge from beneath an artificial shell and outwardly express a personal objective.
And yet, because of Hoss’ totally psychologically invested performance, the ripples of internal transformation become apparent, if only through barely discernible fluctuations in her facial muscles. When Johnny, trying to mold this woman into the seamless image of his wife (which, of course, means Nelly herself), asks her to mimic her own penmanship, he’s taken aback by the exactitude. Nelly, sensing he might arrive at an acknowledgment of her identity, lets out a hint of smile, though it lasts less than a second before her face reverts back to its default blankness. The patient cutting of Petzold and his editor Bettina Böhler—everything’s boiled down to the Nelly’s reactive energy, not necessarily the patterns in the dialogue—is sensitive to these modest eruptions of feeling across largely fixed surfaces, and the sparseness of the compositions, with Hoss’ face looming large amongst nondescript negative space, encourages us to see them too.
The closest Phoenix gets to expository instructions on how to read its narrative is a scene when Nelly’s friend verbally chides her for attempting to reunite with her husband, who she knows betrayed her. A series of photographs she shows to Nelly corroborates this certainty, and from this point Nelly, who’s already advanced beyond the bandaged blank slate of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face, undergoes a shift from the Madeleine of Vertigo to Fassbinder’s Maria Braun, or from a woman complicit in her own distortion at the will of a man to a woman cleverly exploiting those masculine perversions to meet her own ends. Just before a key scene when Nelly interrogates Johnny on the disintegration of his relationship with his “wife”—a metaphysical moment staged on a fast-moving bicycle, with both characters facing forward as the world blurs behind them—Nelly is seen wearing a black sunhat and a netted veil, the iconic get-up of Fassbinder’s classic postwar heroine. Without calling obvious attention to the references (the emergence of the “new” Nelly out of darkness in Johnny’s apartment, suggesting Hitchcock’s sensational reveal, being the nearest to a direct quotation), Petzold has shuttled Hoss’ malleable figure through a series of feminine representations from the history of postwar art cinema, each one more human, more whole, and with more agency than the last.
Barbara and Beats Being Dead, Petzold’s last two films, withheld expression—performative as well as aesthetic—to the point of flatlining-sine-wave blankness. For me at least (though I do intend to rewatch them), they felt locked within their character’s environmentally motivated restraint, unwilling to open a door for the viewer while willingly cultivating a stuffy room. Phoenix is more seductive than either film, beginning with a ludicrous pulp plot and only then tunneling into behavioral nuance. Stefan Will’s uncluttered upright bass and piano score establishes the ambiance of a detective film, while Hans Fromm’s voluptuous cinematography—juxtaposing the shadowy alleyways of dilapidated Berlin against the garish neon of the night clubs in the American sector, then introducing the olive greens and morning dew of the German countryside—extends this aura. To watch Phoenix is to be put in the position of an investigator analyzing the psychological import of the most microscopic of gestures. Historical insight and cinematic sophistication, coexisting in a tight bind that puts neither on a platform, rarely synchronize with such tremendous grace.