“Phoenix” (2015) is one of those rare films that is painfully slow and magnificently dramatic at the same time. It reminded me of “The Pawnbroker” (1964) where psychological suffering precipitates action that raises the principal to stunning heights. Both films are based on novels that take Nazi survivors through the foggy haze of quasi-adjustment to life outside the camps. The Phoenix rising from the ashes here is not Sidney Lumet’s Rod Steiger but the German writer-director Christian Petzold’s Nina Hoss. The numbed deadness and the passion underlying their zombie-like paralysis is stunning in both actors. The solemn tone of both films offers no relief. Viewers are mesmerized by what will happen. We know too well what has gone before.
In “Phoenix” the setting is not New York’s Harlem,but 1945 bombed-out Berlin. The detached and disfigured Esther Blum or “Nelly” Lenz (Nina Hoss) is readying herself for facial reconstruction.Gauze-wrapped and almost mute,she wishes her visage to be restored not changed. She wants her old life back. She is not ready for a new one in Haifa or in Tel Avi as her caretaker-friend, Lena Winter(Nina Kunzedorf) proposes. Nelly is obsessed with finding her husband Johnny.Lena knows Johnny betrayed Nelly under Nazi interrogation and subsequently divorced her. Lena tells Nelly that she does not wish to think about Johnny. She firmly says “I am disgusted that we forgive.” Lena prefers that Nelly shoots Johnny rather than try to reconcile.Lena later commits suicide, for she is “drawn to the dead”.
The slow ascension and lifting of Nelly,this wren of a woman,is our story’s arc. The tension builds and the back turn is as punishing as the metal driven into our pawnbroker’s palm. The Pawnbroker’s stigmata has warped into the stigma left on all the betrayers at and surrounding the piano.The blackened,haunted eyes that spoke, “I no longer exist” have changed.
Lighting, music and acting make this film. The storyline plotting is a mere frame and a rather unbelievable one at that. But given the strong power of guilt,we understand how the mind wants to believe what it wants to believe. Nelly’s handwriting,eye color, and shoe size are dismissed as lucky by Johnny. We marvel at his directive “Quit playing Nelly,I know you are not her!” Johnny is trying to focus on money for the future,not on the sins of the past. He has changed his preferred name to Johannes. It is he who is trying to re-create himself. Ronald Zehrfeld is as outstanding as Johnny as Hoss is as Nelly. His reciting of how the butcher would not sell to his wife and how their friends stopped coming is made current with his statement to Nelly that ” no one looks at the returnees.” His resigned, “There aren’t many Esthers left” is his most memorable line.
While this film’s forgiveness theme and psychological underpinnings can be discussed for decades, it is the lighting and the music that hit our senses. I have never seen a film that takes chiaroscuro to such reaches. From the initial dark car and the bright flashlight at the passport check to the white-sheeted body and the black-bloused pear slicer,dissertations can be written. Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” does the same in aural imagery. The jazz music of Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low”and Nelly’s breathy lyrics of “spark in the dark”and “too soon,too soon” will stay with this moviegoer for years just like Rod Steiger’s pawnbroker’s rage has.