Oh, the profound questions that Phoenix asks.
If you’ve ever been in love, or even just emotionally involved with someone, you may have earned and received a nice “I love you.” Or better yet, the gift of attention. Or remembrance. It’s the little things that count, right? Noticing single details, like the color of hair in a certain light, or how an outfit looked on a certain day. By expressing those things to other people, we create reassurances. We build a case for fondness with constantly re-submitted proof. But how do we validate those compliments’ integrity? Are these words just details, reflexive memories of what to say in order to avoid getting in trouble?
Kind words are nice and all, but what do they sound like when certain restrictions and expectations are lifted? We’re not wearing emotional insecurities on our sleeves here, but isn’t it a little comforting knowing that someone can say something nice about you, or think about you fondly, when you’re not in the room? Mistrustful as that sounds, have you ever wondered what people say about you when you’re gone? Or, if given the chance, would you like to eavesdrop on the fond recollections of those that knew you?
Nelly was a Jewish singer in Berlin during the war. She was taken by Nazis in October 1944, and is assumed dead. However, Nelly managed to survive her concentration camp. Her face, severely damaged, required reconstructive surgery. With time to heal, and the aid of an enigmatic, Jewish Swiss woman named Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), the two return to Berlin. They make make plans to flee the country, but Nelly entertains another kind of resurrection. Nelly wants to seek out her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who’s still alive in Berlin. But to what end?
And here’s the biggest complication of all: Johnny and Nelly do reunite. But Johnny doesn’t recognize Nelly in her new face. The resemblance is striking to Johnny, but surely, Nelly isn’t Johnny’s clearly deceased wife.
Phoenix explores Nelly’s very rare situtation as she begins to spend borrowed time with Johnny under the auspices of an insurance scheme. It’s a delicate act, one too stirring not to deconstruct. They practice, trying to make Nelly recreate Johnny’s vision of his old Nelly. Yet, we’re privy to Nelly’s painstaking quest for acknowledgement.
When Johnny describes the lovelier details of his assumed dead wife, to his actual, living (the head boggles), he describes makeup, grace, and perfect penmanship. But are those all familiar buzzwords from past moments on recall? Did he truly love her, and stand by her? And we see the embattled Nelly, who wants so badly for Johnny to recognize her, but she needs some sort of proof of life, a spark for something she assumed she had, but now isn’t so sure. In web parlance — ow, the feels. It’s a tightrope act that keeps us entrenched in these two’s broken lives.
Hoss and Zehrfeld play out Phoenix’s dicey gambit beautifully. In another film, with weaker performers, the impossibility of the scenario could be brushed off as high concept or preposterous. Yet the two absolutely sell the longing and quiet frustration of this confused couple. Hoss’ performance in particular is nuanced accomplishment of tone and emotional depth; the big-eyed, broken-hearted Nelly is what makes Phoenix so gripping.
Phoenix is a death-defying melodrama of rare emotional obsession. It carefully pushes its conceit to the very limits, practically begging for the truth, or better yet, reconciliation. What if you got to confront the one you supposedly love, in a completely new, yet eerily familiar light? Through the shadowy, silhouette-infused tenets of post-war noir, Phoenix is steeped in heavy themes of rebuilding and reparation. In the vein of Vertigo and Dark Victory, Petzold’s film, based on Hubert Monteilhet’s novel Le Retour des cendres, bottles the essence of longing after tragedy, building gracefully to not a big reveal, but to carefully considered moments of clarity. Phoenix burns, patiently.