REVIEW: Phoenix

22 08 2015

PhoenixWhen analyzed literally within the context of Christian Petzold’s film “Phoenix,” the title refers to a Berlin club where Nina Hoss’ Nelly once crooned with her husband Jonny (Ronald Zehrfeld).  Yet to stop there only scratches the surface of meaning within this richly realized piece.

The phoenix, as many know from mythology (or the “Harry Potter” series), is a bird that can rise from the ashes of its own funeral pyre and give birth to itself once again.  This could easily apply to Nelly, who survived the Nazi concentration camps but emerged with severe damage done to her face.  With the help of some gifted surgeons, she reemerges – but as someone who looks distinctly different from before since the doctors suggest anything to close to the original will only recall painful memories.

For Petzold, the personal is also writ political as the issues Nelly must confront closely mirror those that face her religion, nation, and continent.  Amidst the deep shame and regret that hangs over every scene, they must decide whether to move forward into an unknown future or attempt to recreate the past.  The latter option, while risking a repeat of its imperfections, at least provides some small sense of comfort and recognition amidst a seismic shift in geopolitics that still produces aftershocks today.

Nelly experiences these dangers firsthand when she seeks out her Jonny in spite of good intelligence that suggest he turned her into Gestapo.  Since her facial reconstruction proves enough to incite his curiosity but not enough to trigger recognition, Jonny launches a seemingly hair-brained scheme to pass this woman off for his late wife to get her inheritance money.  And Nelly becomes willingly complicit in making it happen.

Credit Hoss for making this decision feel like it comes from a place other than pure masochism.  She gets down in the mud with Petzold and co-writer Harun Farocki’s script to grapple with the messiness of identity on scales large and small. With their commitment, “Phoenix” makes for the ultimate exploration of the paradox of trying to move forward while casting a glance backwards.  Thanks to Nelly, we can feel our away through some tricky contradictions facing both people and nations – not just ponder them with an academic remove.  B+3stars

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