Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a Holocaust survivor, visits a doctor’s office to have her face recreated after a gunshot wound left her visage and psyche disfigured. For her new face and identity, the doctor gives her two choices: to look like Zarah Leander or Krisitina Soderbaum, actresses who were popular during the 30s and 40s. Nelly pleads she just wants to look like herself, but it’s impossible; the pain inflicted by the Holocaust has left her too battered. She can only put on an act, a falsely-constructed persona. She is not the person she was before. She can only pretend to be.
As the protagonist stitches together an artificial identity, so the film form stitches together conventions from different eras in cinema’s history: an artificial identity living in an artificial world. While the plot is about a wealthy Jewish woman who returns disfigured from Auschwitz to an unfamiliar Berlin after the war, the aesthetics and narrative deliberately draw from portions of film history, not to rip-off, but to use the connotations from genre conventions to build a post-WWII Germany that is egregious and eerie but also self-reflexively conscious. This review will be divided into two parts: (1) a conventional break down of the film from a classic perspective, viewing it in terms of plot, my own viewing experience etc. (2) an analysis of Phoenix as a postmodern film in terms of its pastiche and self-reflexivity.
Phoenix has the kind of unabashedly melodramatic story that Hollywood would expertly craft during the 50s. As a part of a New New German Cinema, Petzold’s film stands alongside Downfall and The Lives Of Others as an accessible and moving portrait of German history. In many ways, the plot is extremely unlikely and far-fetched, but put in a world that utilizes the connotations from allusions to film history, Phoenix is remarkably moving and tense. The shadowy blacks that permeate most frames recall the underbelly of society depicted in classic noirs, and the story and imagery integrate elements from old, German Rubble films.
After returning from the death camp and having her face reconstructed, Nelly goes to Berlin with a companion, Lene, who is part of a group that helps Holocaust survivors. Before the war, Nelly had money, but now she is even wealthier, as she inherited the riches of her extended family because, as Jews, they were murdered during the war by the Nazis. In Berlin she looks for her husband, Johnny, who may have disclosed her background to the Nazis before she was taken to Auschwitz. When she comes across the titular bar, Phoenix, Johnny is inside working as a bus boy. One night as she leaves the bar he confronts her and makes her a proposition (while not recognizing that he is actually speaking to his wife because she has a different face): she is to pretend to be Nelly so that he can inherit the riches.
Throughout this melodramatic story, Petzold is crafting a disturbing perspective of Germany. In terms of its morality, sovereignty, and infrastructure, the country is collapsing. Thieves, beggars, and rapists creepily lurk in the shadows of the city that has bombed ruins around every corner. The streets are overrun by American soldiers, a foreshadowing of the economic influence and imperialism that would come in future decades. Every allegorical element of post-war Germany is disturbingly bleak. The film, which seems to be designed to address the mainstream and art-house spectator, is thoroughly dramatic but also thought-provokingly allegorical.
There are at least two crucial attributes to postmodern film: pastiche and self-reflexivity. A film is self-reflexive when it draws the spectator’s attention to the filmmaking process and consequently calls into question the knowledge that can be attained from a constructed image.
Other than the numerous direct references to other films and actresses, the clearest moment where Phoenix draws attention to its own construction is when Johnny attempts to orchestrate a homecoming for Nelly by appealing to the glamour of a Hollywood film. Earlier in the scene he acts like the director as he teaches the protagonist how to walk, talk, and write like Nelly. Johnny explains that she must have her hair perfectly done with a glamorous dress and high heels for when he stages the homecoming. Grabbing a magazine cover with a beautiful actress on the front, he shows her how she will ideally look. As the director of the film, Johnny is crafting the perfect movie star to play the role in his plan. Nelly responds in shock, “Nobody will buy it.”
Visually and narratively, Phoenix is a pastiche of classic noirs (drawing heavily from The Third Man), Rubble Films, and 50s melodramas. But here’s the point: Petzold is meticulously accentuating the postmodernity of the film’s world by appealing to postmodern film conventions. He makes us aware that Nelly Lenz, or, more specifically, the actress who plays her, is acting over top of a character who herself is acting. Nelly fights a post-war landscape that makes her put on a happy face. She even battles the very film itself to find something true and authentic in a broken world of pastiches. Identity can only be found for Nelly through movies and Johnny’s movie-like direction. Who will she be: Zarah Leander or Krisitina Soderbaum? Or will she learn to have a new face?