Change can be difficult. It seems to cost us what we hold dear. And it is most devastating when it comes suddenly—though it always does if we really pay attention—appearing to be wrought by disaster, when circumstances starkly reveal themselves as beyond our control. But German director Christian Petzold’s new psychodrama Phoenix asks us what the cost of resisting change, or at least of trying to restore things to what they had been before catastrophe struck, might exact.
Set in Berlin shortly after World War II, Phoenix opens with two women driving at night through the rubble of the blasted city. Their conversation reveals that the driver’s sister, Nelly, her head wrapped in bandages, has been disfigured by a shot to the face while in a concentration camp. Due to the severity of her injuries, surgery will reconstruct her face but not restore it, exactly, to what she had looked like before the war. She will merely resemble herself.
Once the bandages are removed, Nelly haunts Berlin searching for her husband Johnny, a piano player, finally locating him at the cabaret Phoenix. But when she calls out his name, he does not recognize her. At least, not exactly. Instead, he tells her later that she reminds him of his dead wife and asks her if she will pose as his wife so he can gain access to her assets, which would normally have been his, had not the war interceded. She agrees, telling him her name is Esther. The film’s drama unfolds as Johnny molds “Esther” into Nelly, who is anguished that her husband, the love of her life, the man whose memory kept her alive in the concentration camp, doesn’t recognize him. To make matters worse, her sister has reason to believe that Johnny is the one who had reported Nelly to the Nazis.
As Johnny gets ready to publicly stage his reunion with “Nelly,” one realizes that despite the degree to which the war transformed Nelly, it seems either to have left Johnny intact or at least in a position where he feels he can just pick up precisely where he left off before it had broken out. This also seems to be true of Nelly’s and Johnny’s circle of friends. What is implied stings. And it makes the movie’s final scene, the most powerful in the film, land a heavy emotional blow.
Still, if the film ends strongly, there is an austerity to the overall storytelling that works against the movie’s premise. Mistaken identity to this degree is a theatrical conceit. In the theater, nothing and everything is as it appears—we see what see but in light of what we’re told it is—so identities can be adopted and shed with giddy ease. Cinema isn’t driven by the same shift in perception, making it harder to accept Johnny’s inability to recognize Nelly. What he sees in Esther is troubled throughout the film, taking him to the brink of the truth, but it never seems to trouble him. He just blithely moves forward, bleaching drama from the story, unnecessarily masking the cost of trying to bring what is dead back to life.