“Love is a spark
Lost in the dark
– Speak Low
Darkness. Two bass notes. A broken piano chord. Brightening lights slowly reveal a car with two occupants pulling towards an armed checkpoint. After requesting the passport of the woman driving, the guard demands to see the face of the other, huddled in the passenger seat. Reluctant at first, the figure eventually submits to his angry demands. We do not see what is revealed from beneath swathes of bandages, but the guard suddenly goes quiet and dutiful, letting the car through without another moment’s delay.
Phoenix centres upon a famous Jewish singer, Nelly (Nina Hoss), whose face is badly disfigured whilst imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. She survives the ordeal, and undergoes plastic surgery to reconstruct her face, but when she returns home her husband Johannes (Ronald Zehrfeld) does not recognise her, bluntly informing the woman standing before him that his wife is dead. However, this supposed other woman bears just enough of a resemblance to his beloved that he asks her to impersonate Nelly, in order that he may lay claim to their substantial estate.
This, the film’s primary plot, essentially plays out as one long ironic “joke”, but one that is superbly told. Much of the substance is conveyed through absences – silences in conversations, faces hidden by veils or shadows, and lack of understanding or appreciation amongst many of the characters. An early scene, in the hospital where Nelly is recovering from her operation, sets the tone of ambiguous identities: is every shot representing a different patient, robed in identical hospital garments and with the same bandage-obscured heads, or are we seeing a surreal tableau of many instances of Nelly strung together from one timeframe?
Hoss, in the lead role, carries the film with a performance of extraordinary intensity; her bruised and bulging eyes seem to occupy most of the screen at times, bearing an immense weight of trauma and suspense. They convey her pain and anxiety in being contradicted at every turn – by her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), who wishes Nelly to join her in moving to Palestine rather than stay in Berlin; by her husband, who insists on being called by his accustomed pet name Johnny in public, but refuses to allow the alleged lookalike to do so in private; and even by total strangers, who seem to exist only to reinforce her lack of agency over her current path.
Christian Petzold directs with deft artistic touches throughout, particularly in his sense of colour. Scenes at the hospital and Lene’s house are a milieu of calming creams and forest greens, whilst the Phoenix nightclub where Nelly finds Johnny working is bedecked in thick, sultry blacks and reds. This symbolism is reflected in the clothes Nelly wears; initially in a white medical gown and with blonde hair, Johannes coerces her into wearing a dazzling scarlet dress and darkening her hair to make her more presentable for the reunion he is staging with their surviving relatives – “People want to see Nelly, not a ragged camp-internee”.
The deterioration in Nelly’s relationships with both Lene and Johannes, and the gradual revelation of the events that led her to be betrayed to the Nazis in the first place, add further twists to an already compelling story. It is not a spoiler to say that this charade in which Nelly is an unwilling participant finds a resolution at the film’s climax, but its precise nature is wrenching nonetheless; you want simultaneously to gasp at the manner in which the tension builds and reaches its penetrating release in the very last minute, yet also to laugh at its ingenuity. Phoenix is as perfect a blend of black comedy and sardonic tragedy as you could hope to see – a cautionary tale that shows the truth is sometimes closer than we realise.