Speak low when you speak, love
Our summer day withers away too soon, too soon
Speak low when you speak, love
Our moment is swift
Like ships adrift we’re swept apart too soon
~ Speak Low (1943)
Anyone who’s watched a Christian Petzold film already knows that he crafts fascinating almost spellbinding films and that quality rests greatly on the laurels of Nina Hoss. Phoenix is yet another film that is a mesmerizing enigma.
It’s positively entrancing with its pacing — where you almost get lost within its minutes. Because although time never moves fast you quickly lose track as the mind is soon overwhelmed with a plethora of questions. In fact, all the time while you’re watching it all you can do is question. Implausibilities all but fade away in the presence of such uncertainty. If anything they get lost in the rubble.
It feels as if we’re trying to construct our own truth, which is almost maddeningly impossible because none of these characters seem ready to divulge any information. The past is a black shroud that everyone is reluctant to talk about. It makes sense because that soon after what do you say about the Holocaust? How do you cope or even begin to acknowledge the horrors that went on? It’s only 50, 60, 70 years later that we’ve finally been able to broach the subject as outsiders — people who did not experience those events firsthand. It’s easier for us to try and talk about it because we can never fully comprehend the climate. What would we have done? What would have happened to us? What would our lives have looked like in the aftermath?
The characters in Phoenix are beings in that post-war wasteland with specters hanging over them, and lives scarred by pain and suffering. They’re trying to salvage their existences the best they can, but they’re hardly existing as they did before the war. But allow me to backtrack for a moment.
Nelly (Nina Hoss) is physically maimed so horribly that her face is constantly covered in bloody bandages. Petzold does us a favor by not showing her visage before she gets reconstructive surgery. Like the shadow of the Holocaust, we are forced to imagine it on our own which is far more powerful. This is what her face looks like and this is perhaps how it happened.
What we do know is that she was arrested on October 4th, 1944 and her husband Johnny was as well. But Nelly’s faithful friend and guardian angel Lene says that he betrayed her. That’s what she believes, and yet upon hearing this news it hardly alters Nelly’s response. She’s still intent on finding him and picking up all the pieces. When she has a little more strength she begins wandering about the American sector looking for any signs of her former beau.
It turns out that Johnny works as a waiter in a cabaret Hall called Phoenix. When he first sets eyes on Nelly — it’s not his wife that he sees, but a wonderful impostor. She’s a woman who is strikingly similar, but her face is different. She’s the perfect accomplice as Johnny, or Johannes as he now goes tries to secure his dead wife’s assets.
What follows is his mission to make her into his old wife. In many ways, it works as an inversion of the Vertigo conundrum. He thinks he’s making this woman into his deceased wife, and he coaches, dresses, and shapes her more in the image of Nelly. However, this hardly feels like an obsessive desire of dashed love, but a project to get him closer to his final goal. It’s not that sentimental, but Nelly follows along with the whole thing benevolently. To be close to Johnny is enough. But how does she even begin to break the news? Perhaps most frightening of all what will Johnny’s reaction be? After all, the wartime has changed them both.
So if you want to break it down to its most basic roots, Phoenix feels rather like a Holocaust film meeting Vertigo. But in essence, it defies that type of simple categorization. It lacks the odious horror of flashbacks and the glossy Hollywood production values of the latter. It fills its own niche altogether that even channels some of the darkness of noir. And there is no cathartic moment of emotional release. Instead, we are forced to watch as the characters bury their thoughts and feelings deeper and deeper. Perhaps they lie there somewhere under the surface. However, these are not histrionic people. They feel common and every day led by the performances of Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld.
In this way, the performances are muted and repressed. In fact, there is little headway in the film and few epiphanies until the very end. That’s when for a few brief solitary moments things fall into place. We don’t know what will happen afterward, and in a way, we are suspended in the moment — left to ponder so many things. You could either make the case that Phoenix has shallow characters, or that there is so much depth within them that we cannot even begin to understand — like icebergs still partially submerged.
Many wonderful films lose so much of their magic because they dispel too much — give away too many of their hard-fought secrets. But Phoenix makes us work through everything, and it can be hard going certainly, and yet it is a thoroughly gratifying experience. We watch movies to be moved. We watch movies to be perplexed. We watch movies to acknowledge our wonderment in the human condition because it is a complex quandary that continually reveals new bits of enlightenment. Phoenix might leave us with more riddles than answers, and we should be content in that reality. That’s part of the magic.Like the mythical Phoenix of old, in a way, these characters try and die to their old selves, and rise out of the ashes a new. Life is never that easy — always being clouded by doubts as our pasts come back to haunt us. It’s how we deal with that past that matters most.