Director: Christian Petzold
Runtime: 98 minutes
Despite seasoned careers, director Christian Petzold and actress Nina Hoss have precious little name recognition in the US, outside of the festival circuit. That will hopefully change with this weekend's release of Phoenix, the third collaboration between the two. This Vertigo-esque drama, which wowed crowds at last year's Toronto Film Festival, has its flaws - most notably in the pacing - but is still a rewarding slice of German cinema. If nothing else, it deserves attention for Hoss' beautifully understated central performance that reaches its height in a gorgeously executed finale.
Set just after the end of World War II, Phoenix begins with Nelly Lenz (Hoss) on her way to a secluded hospital. Stopped by American soldiers at a checkpoint, Nelly is eventually forced to reveal why she has obscured her face: brutal scars incurred in a concentration camp. Though her eventual surgery does wonders for her injuries, Nelly is understandably shellshocked. She looks quite a bit like her old self, yet shows no joy at the prospect of reuniting with her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). The reason (well, other than the horrific trauma)? She's ambivalent about the idea that dear Johnny may have had a role in her capture by the Nazis.
Yet even though Phoenix's story positions the narrative to function as a psychological mystery, Petzold's screenplay fares best when sticking with the simpler ideas. The introductory act chronicling Nelly's physical recovery is given just the right amount of distance. Petzold avoids sensationalizing Nelly's grief or the gruesome details behind her injuries, in favor of beautiful and solemn imagery capturing the turmoil from afar. These also happen to be the scenes that require the least from Hoss, which is where the film's eventual fumbles arise.
When Nelly reunites with Johnny, he doesn't recognize her, and takes her under his wing at his nightclub (from which the film derives its title). There's an understandable reserve in Hoss' work here that isn't immediately impressive, but builds slowly and surely. Zehrfeld is quite good as well, and avoids making Johnny either overtly sinister or suspiciously saintly. The two actors are a great match for each other, especially given their respective roles.
And that's why it's frustrating that so much of Phoenix's middle comes off as repetitions of a single scene. Nelly is withdrawn and downtrodden, while Johnny is opportunistic and brusque. It's a testament to both actors that Phoenix is always watchable, because at this point Petzold's screenplay starts moving the story forward only centimeters at a time. It's one thing to have variations of a certain scene throughout a screenplay, but here it often feels like Petzold decided to just Copy+Paste a handful of conversations while only changing one or two details.
Even so, it's hard to deny what Petzold pulls off once he gets the pacing back on track. With Johnny's intentions finally out in the open, the film's amorphous middle takes shape. The truth begins to masquerade as lies, and turns this seemingly simple case of mistaken identity into an unsettling web of moral ambiguities. Just when you think Petzold has let his focus slip too far, he pulls it all together just in time before segueing into the conclusion.
Words like "shocking" and "devastating" have been thrown around a lot when discussing the final scene of Phoenix, and not without reason. Yet, in stressing these descriptors, one risks inflating a sequence that is very purposefully executed on a small scale. Phoenix's ending isn't exactly the sort of scene one can "spoil." It's not a revelation that changes one's perception of all that came before. Instead, it's a painful and beautiful moment of honesty, handled with delicacy and precision. Phoenix's middle is certainly a bit flabby, but Petzold's ending is cut as if by an X-acto knife. There are so many questions left unanswered as the credits roll over the film's open-ended emotional devastation. Yet given how hauntingly Petzold, Hoss, and Zehrfeld execute this story, the endpoint makes sense. In the wake of such raw pain, asking for more answers only seems cruel.