Credit: Christian Schulz
by Ryan Swen Featured Film Retrospective

Phoenix | Christian Petzold

June 3, 2021

Any discussion of Phoenix almost begs to begin with the ending. One of the greatest mic-drop endings in all but the most literal sense, it acts as an overwhelming release, a moment of long-awaited triumph over schemes and betrayal, all conveyed through glances, the reveal of a marked arm, and a piercing, impossible to replicate voice. The catharsis and clarity of that scene refuses to be denied, so much so that it almost threatens to overshadow the rest of one of Christian Petzold’s greatest films. But in looking beyond those final three-and-a-half minutes, one can get a clearer picture of what makes the film, and the ending, such a powerful, even mysterious experience.

Beginning in a shadowed car at night, Phoenix establishes its period setting with unusual clarity for Petzold: the American uniforms and flatly accented English of the soldiers at the checkpoint that stops Nelly (Nina Hoss) and Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) clearly demarcate the film as taking place just after World War II, in internationally-occupied Berlin and its surroundings.  Indeed, it is a film filled to almost bursting with period detail, from the crumbling ruins to the dramatic train station to the seedy clubs, so much so that one could be forgiven for seeing the film as primarily a stylistic exercise, a chance for Petzold to finally craft a world markedly separate from the 21st-century Germany that has typified so much of his work.

But Phoenix is above all a profoundly internal film, one dedicated to mindsets, investigations, and projections, as characters constantly circle the ghosts of their pasts and of the unimaginable crimes of a nation. The Holocaust remains at the forefront of Nelly’s mind throughout, not least because of the distinct possibility that Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) may have betrayed her to suffer at the hands of the Nazis. However, it’s just as crucial that nothing is shown of her time there. Rather than go a shock-and-awe route, bluntly impressing upon the viewer the trauma undergone by the survivors, Petzold lets his sense of atmosphere suggest and even confront that recent violence. More than a third of the film passes before the “main narrative” truly begins to unfold, and that time is necessarily put toward establishing that mood, which persists across countryside hospitals, fraught street encounters, and even a few almost ghostly images: in her bandages, Nelly holds a spectral presence at some times, an achingly human one at others, a spectrum of presentations that persists, and which Hoss portrays with complete assuredness, throughout the entire film.

When the main narrative does arrive, comparisons to Vertigo almost seem too obvious: a man reshaping a woman to be his presumably deceased lover, only to belatedly discover that she is that very same woman. But crucial differences abound: the film takes place from her point of view, and thus the audience is aware from the very first moment of the subterfuge at play; Johnny’s preparations focus as much on Nelly’s behavior as on her physical form; and his motives are entirely mercenary, disbelieving in the very possibility of her surviving the war. Perhaps most importantly of all, the viewer is never given a glimpse into the couple’s past life, never able to see the supposed ideal that Johnny is projecting onto the woman he believes to be a poor stranger. Such a change consciously reframes and breaks the dreamlike spell that that epochal film weaved over its second half. Here, it is resolutely dedicated to materiality, to the step-by-step molding and procedures that must be undergone into “fooling” the world that Nelly has returned.

Thus, Phoenix’s ending brings all the exiled ghosts and feelings firmly back into the present. Petzold’s achievement is such that, even though the viewer has stayed tethered to this woman for the entirety of the film, feeling her emotions and turmoil, her anxiety and curiosity, it is as if they are truly seeing her for the first time. Hoss’s impassioned voice does a great deal, yes, but it owes just as much to Petzold’s sense of time and pacing. “Speak Low” is by design a song with a looping structure, and in tandem with the sudden paring away of the spectators sitting in the same room as the performances, focusing on just Nelly and Johnny in alternating shots, the film which seemed so concerned with a forward momentum, a progression of understanding and deception, suddenly halts in its tracks, stretching out for what seems like eons. When the song is broken off, the people around these two shattered lovers return; Petzold is not so naïve as to think that time can be decisively turned back, only stalled. But once that interlude is up, time begins flowing again, and here it does so with the most resolute of irresolutions, with, at last, a future for its heroine that is open, free from the prescriptions and lies of others.

Part of Christian Petzold: In the Cut.