Just Be Yourself
By Michael Koresky

Dir. Christian Petzold, Germany, IFC Films

Contemporary German cinema leading light Christian Petzold’s exquisitely crafted post-World War II period drama Phoenix is haunted in many ways, first and foremost by music. The film’s central theme is Kurt Weill’s delicate 1943 ballad “Speak Low,” repeated so often it becomes a leitmotif. When we first hear it, it’s gently strummed on a bass, as minimalist blues over the opening credits. Later we hear the song in radio recordings, a nightclub show, and, finally, in a climactic performance from one of the film’s main characters. By the time this occurs, and we are able to fully hear poet Ogden Nash’s poignant, autumnal lyrics, which honor the triumph of love even as they acknowledge its inevitable wither and decay (“We’re late, darling we’re late/The curtain descends, everything ends/Too soon, too soon”), the song, written, crucially by a German-born U.S. émigré, has become inseparable from the film’s rhythm and emotional quintessence, as though welling up from its dark interior.

There’s something intrinsically classical Hollywood about this gesture, about employing a popular song to subtly strike a particular chord with its viewers. It reminds us that a film can work on its audience in much the same way music does, with every note calibrated to achieve a particular emotional effect. It’s reminiscent of the repeated use of Weill’s heartrending “September Song” in William Dieterle’s underseen 1950 melodrama September Affair. In that film, Weill’s music spoke to the ache at the center of Joseph Cotten and Joan Fontaine’s ethereal romance, enacted only when they are both presumed dead by the entire world after the crash of a plane they were supposed to be on. Phoenix doesn’t tell a love story, but it does tell of a doomed relationship between a woman and man. And while the film has the sober, stately quality of so much state-funded European art cinema today, it feels even more like a throwback to the era of fifties postwar filmmaking, itself haunted by the new realities of a ravaged, upside-down world.

The film’s basic stylistic realism is provocatively at odds with its story, which is informed by a more luxurious kind of American melodrama. The result is a gorgeously odd film, a quietly symphonic elegy fueled by a magnificently preposterous plot that ends up as something like a cross between Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli and Hitchcock’s Vertigo—but communicated through the specific experience of Jewish-German identity. Miraculously, the film, based on a Hubert Monteilhet novel, feels purely emotional rather than heady or mannered, its contrivances employed to supremely satisfying narrative ends.

The viewer will be amply rewarded for suspending disbelief. Try this on for size: a Jewish woman, Nelly (Nina Hoss), returns to Berlin from Auschwitz not long after the end of the war. When we first see her, crossing an American-operated Swiss-German border checkpoint at night, her face is hidden behind bloody bandages that make her look like the Invisible Man or The Tenant’s pathetic, wailing Simone Choule. She is the passenger of her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a Jewish lawyer who had left Germany before the war for London, and is now helping Nelly, who has also seemingly been abandoned by her husband, try to return to some semblance of a life. With her entire family dead and her face disfigured, Nelly appears without identity. As the film will go on to demonstrate, however, identity itself is hardly fixed. Does Nelly consider herself a German or a Jew? Is she her own person or somebody’s wife? Underlining her essential malleability, she will undergo a hospital operation that will leave her with a newly constructed face.

Once she finally emerges from her bandages (Petzold refreshingly shies away from a dramatic reveal scene of any kind), Nelly is so unrecognizable from before that when she tracks down her husband, Johannes, called Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), even he doesn’t know it’s her. According to Lene, however, Nelly should banish all thoughts of reconnecting with the gentile Johnny, a pianist who had accompanied her when she worked as a cabaret singer, as she claims he betrayed her to the Nazis and divorced her behind her back after she was taken to the camps. Furthermore, Lene is trying to persuade Nelly to join her in Haifa, where, she says, “we are being allocated terrain.” Despite her friend’s insistence that they relocate to a promised new Jewish state, Nelly is drawn back into matters of personal rather than social identity, and goes in search of Johnny. After she approaches him, near the Phoenix nightclub where he still plays, in a rubble-strewn alley that Petzold’s regular cinematographer Hans Fromm shoots with evocative noirish lighting and which is constructed with economical but vivid set design, he is immediately struck by her. She is not his wife, he thinks, but is reminiscent enough of her that he can pull her into a scheme—to pose as his dead wife so that she can collect her own inheritance.

As a film about a double who isn’t really a double, Phoenix will undoubtedly conjure thoughts of a certain oft-cited Hitchcock film. Yet Phoenix plays with the conventions of this ultimate dream film in many ways, not least of which is making it all from the point of view of the knowing woman rather than the duped man. Various tensions energize Petzold’s film, some of them narrative-based: Will Nelly want to simply reconnect with Johnny or does she want to exact revenge? How and when will Johnny find out the truth about his perceived counterfeit wife? Other tensions are of a more spiritual nature: When will Nelly accept the possibility of a future untethered to her past? How will she truly identify herself? All of this is in aid of a story that’s at its core about the lies we tell to ourselves, and about ourselves, so that we can maintain a social or marital status quo—issues clearly made all the more urgent by the film’s traumatic World War II time period.

As a marriage reconstruction drama, Phoenix is stingingly ironic: we only hope that Nelly and Johnny can truthfully reconnect with each other so that she can ultimately punish and leave him again. As Johnny “teaches” Nelly to be like Nelly, we become increasingly aware of the brute he must have been in their relationship before the war. He instructs her to repeatedly enter the door of his shabby basement apartment in an effort to learn how to walk more like herself; he teaches her to imitate her own handwriting; and finally, in the most Vertigo-like scene, forces her to make herself up like the glamorous Nelly he knew, with shoes and a dress from Paris. In one of the film’s slyest and subtlest conceits, the more she enacts this false return to her “true” self, the further away she gets from the person she once was. And this is the key to Nina Hoss’s magnificent, tremulous performance: at every moment, she appears as though she’s emotionally freefalling, meanwhile feverishly sorting through layers of meaning and truth about herself, her husband, and her home country—all accomplished with the slightest flickers of recognition on her beautiful, bruised face.

Hoss has worked with Petzold in multiple films now, and the way her restrained intensity effortlessly matches the director’s understated melodrama helps make Phoenix feel as much a character study as a high-concept drama about postwar identity. The savvy Petzold walks a tightrope throughout, keeping his far-fetched premise emotionally authentic and his several layers of fabricated realities clearly delineated. Just as Nelly grows aware of herself as a construction, the film acknowledges its own basis as melodrama; a gun is even introduced early on, although one might take Lene’s advice as she hands it to Nelly as a message from the filmmaker: “Sometimes just showing it is enough.” As the film reaches its final act, imminent violence hangs in the air: there’s even a moment in which Johnny threatens to scar Nelly, which, in context, is quite shocking. Yet Petzold’s ending, a masterful shot-reverse shot sequence of escalating disquiet, fueled by that final performance of “Speak Low,” cuts to the quick in a manner far more satisfying than any bloodletting could ever achieve.