Phoenix doesn’t fully rise out of the ashes until its moving conclusion.
Director Christian Petzold sets the tone for his slow burn WWII melodrama Phoenix with moving performances of the 1943 Kurt Weill-Ogden Nash song, “Speak Low,” which has become a standard and suits the film’s understated power. While Phoenix’s Vertigo-meets the-Holocaust plot line leads to a final scene that will be on many critics’ year-end highlights reel, that scene features one good dramatic revelation in a film that doesn’t quite sustain its drama.
The setting is just after World War II. Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) drives her friend Nelly (Nina Hoss) through a checkpoint manned by American soldiers. Because Nelly’s head is bandaged, a suspicious soldier demands to see her face; she reluctantly complies, and though we don’t see what the guard sees, the reaction on his face is enough to tell us what she looks like, and he sadly lets her through.
A noted cabaret singer before the war, Nelly survived Auschwitz long enough to be released, but she was shot in the face. She soon undergoes reconstructive surgery, but, although she wanted her old face back, this didn’t prove possible.
Petzold doesn’t let us know what Nelly looked like before her injury, but Hoss, a Petzold regular, immerses us in the tentative world of a woman who has lost her identity. It’s uncomfortable to watch Nelly’s awkwardness in her own body as she comes across like the walking dead, shell-shocked from her experiences at Auschwitz.
Lene tells Nelly that her husband betrayed her to the Nazis in exchange for his own freedom, but Nelly refuses to believe it, and tracks him down anyway. His name is Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), and he works in a nightclub with the overly-meaningful name of Phoenix. Nelly’s face is changed enough that he doesn’t recognize her, and she doesn’t let on who she really is even when he suggests that she looks enough like his presumably dead wife that she might be able to help him claim her estate. He asks her to stage a triumphant return from the concentration camp to prove she’s alive, and promises to split the estate with her.
It’s a profound psychological horror: when Nelly tries to play herself as her husband wishes, he’s not convinced, as if he hadn’t really been paying attention to his wife at all. But the psychological drama is slightly diminished by the film’s inclusion of Lene, who seems to fit into the plot mainly as a crutch, first to support Nelly through facial reconstruction and then to show her what her husband was really like. The film’s real drama occurs between Johnny and Nelly as they play a kind of cat and mouse game. Though Nelly keeps her identity a secret, Johnny too seems to be in denial—it seems impossible that he wouldn’t eventually recognize his wife.
The version of “Speak Low” that begins Phoenix is an instrumental; as a bassist plucks the thick lines of its melody, the music suggests that its unspoken lyric is a warning to keep quiet. This is one of the film’s powerful themes: there’s an unfortunately natural urge to keep quiet in the face of evil, to save yourself from danger. But isn’t it more dangerous to hide your identity? Phoenix doesn’t fully rise out of the ashes until its moving conclusion, by which time it’s only partially able to prove its point about the power of the human voice.