Film Reviews

MECHANICAL EYE – <i>Phoenix</i> (2014)

MECHANICAL EYE – Phoenix (2014)

Claire Graman

August 27th, 2015


Film noir is so quintessentially of its time that modern takes on the genre seem more like homages than heirs. The German film Phoenix is the exception that proves the rule. Sure, there’s the mystery, the jazz, even a girl Friday, and an homme fatale. But dig deeper and you’ll hit what critics argue noir is all about — the darkness and moral ambiguity of a world coping with historical tragedy. With a pedigree of critically-acclaimed dramas like Barbara (2012) and Jerichow (2008), German director Christian Petzold crafts a masterful psychological-heist film, where the payoff has to do with something far more valuable than even the most priceless figurine bird.

Phoenix follows Nelly (Nina Hoss), survivor of a concentration camp and a gunshot to the face. After reconstructive surgery, she looks somewhat like herself, but not quite. Her only surviving friend, Lene (Kirsten Block), urges a joint flight to Palestine, but Nelly longs to find her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who Lene believes betrayed her to the Nazis. When Nelly finds him, he doesn’t recognize her except as a near-ringer for the wife he believes dead — nor does she reveal her identity. Johnny hatches a plan to pass Nelly off as his wife so they can collect the inheritance from relatives who didn’t survive. She plays along, hoping to discover the truth.

Critics have compared Phoenix to Vertigo, and they share many important qualities: themes of identity and obsession, a plot about man shaping a woman into what she thinks she ought to be, a general sense of uncanniness. Yet in the Technicolor prosperity of the 1950s, Hitchcock’s brand of madness seems safely isolated in its filmic universe. In Phoenix, it’s not the characters who are mad, but the world.

On one level, Phoenix allegorizes the dilemma of post-war Germany: how to rebuild what, in perhaps the most vital ways, cannot be put right. Lene refuses to forgive and wants to start anew somewhere else, while Nelly longs to go back to the way things were, not out of naiveté, but from the need to recover her sense of self. On a smaller level, Phoenix is about the intricacies of a relationship, and what meaning can be gleaned from gestures, shared memories, kept mementos.

Petzold wisely refrains from flashbacks — the audience never sees Nelly’s experience in the camps or her relationship with Johnny. Just as the best horror films give you only fleeting glimpses of their monsters, Phoenix relies on subtlety, making what is revealed all the more haunting. As such, the film asks a lot of its viewers; we have to imagine life inside and outside the camps, what it is to love beyond reason, what survival really means. The superb acting makes this daunting task easier; Hoss balances trauma and hope, making her character’s actions plausible. Zehrfeld does the opposite, keeping his actions and words ambiguous enough to keep Nelly and the audience engrossed in the mystery.

Yet, it would be inaccurate to call Phoenix a mystery, which is how the film goes beyond the classical noir, in which the detective always gets his man. What’s at stake in Phoenix is not what the answer is, but if there is an answer at all.

Phoenix continues its run at the Bijou Art Cinemas. Click here for showtimes.

Claire Graman is an English PhD candidate at the University of Oregon. She studies history, film, and when the two collide. Mechanical Eye is an irregular column in which she provides critical analyses of films screening locally.

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