Christian Petzold’s Phoenix falls short of being a truly great film, but it has some wonderful things to recommend it—chief among them being a final scene that is as cleverly deployed as it is poignant. It also sports a quietly intense performance by Nina Hoss as Nelly, a German Jew who, when the film opens, is being brought back to Berlin from Auschwitz after the war by her friend Lene. Nelly’s face has been so badly damaged that her doctor tells her she will never look exactly the same as she once did. While Lene responds to the trauma of the Holocaust methodically and logically—she researches the whereabouts of other prisoners, offers to help Nelly settle her finances, and looks forward to resettling in Palestine—Nelly is haunted by the wish to re-inhabit her former life. She longs to track down her husband Johnny, a pianist, even after learning that he was responsible for her arrest by the Nazis. And when, after she finds Johnny working as a janitor at a cabaret, he fails to recognize her, Nelly agrees to pose as herself in order to help him collect her restitution money.
It’s a neat premise, and it makes for a compelling melodrama. Nelly is like a masochistic heroine out of Fassbinder. Desperate to assert her identity, she pretends to be someone else so that she can play herself; desperate to reunite with Johnny (even with the knowledge that he has betrayed her), she allows him to manipulate her. Phoenix is being compared to Vertigo in the way that it blurs the lines between performance and reality with a tragic irony (as well as for its somewhat absurd premise). Personally, I wished that Phoenix had been willing to risk even more—to push its themes of irrational desire to the limit point, as Vertigo and Fassbinder’s films do. It ends up being a little too restrained and modest for its own good, and thus comes to feel respectable verging on boring. There’s the heart of something florid and dark in this movie, but it’s been smothered by too much good taste.
It’s telling that it comes to life most fully in the early cabaret sequences and in the final scene, all of which are fed by the sounds of Weimar-era jazz music. In the post-war context of the film’s setting, that music has come to feel ghoulish and nauseating, but it retains its bumptious and sleazy edge—something that Kurt Weill had, of course, explored in his Threepenny Opera and that Kander and Ebb would later channel to brilliant effect in Cabaret. The cabaret scenes in Phoenix feel exciting and scary: you feel that anything could happen there. Petzold also uses a handheld camera in those scenes, making them feel freer and less staid than the rest of the movie. When the music stops and Petzold’s camera comes to rest, Phoenix congeals.