With a plethora of promising but one-time-only and overlapping options on Saturday night, including Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck at the Capitol, a Jennifer Reeder shorts program at Cinematheque, and the Midwest premiere of Limbo (produced at the same academy as last year’s loony domestic subversion, Strange Little Cat) in Sundance Cinema 5, it was Phoenix in the adjacent Sundance Cinema 6 where audiences flocked. There was not an empty seat in the house for Christian Petzold’s new psychological period film that burns brightly as a re-rendering of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).
From the enveloping darkness of the theatre to the measure of jazz piano and double bass emanating from the screen’s nightly hour, emerges a vehicle’s headlights rolling towards a rural checkpoint en route to postwar Berlin, circa 1945; the driver is Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf), a Jewish Agency worker, who’s escorting a former singer and Auschwitz victim, Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), to a hospital for facial reconstructive surgery after a bullet shattered her cheek and nose. Romantically coveting her former life, Nelly pleads with the surgeon to cosmetically restore every contour of her old countenance even if it proves unfeasible. Seeking a means to slip back into her old life, to jar awake her dormant identity, she locates her pianist husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who has presumed her dead, at the Phoenix bar in the American district. In disbelief about his rumored betrayal, Nelly continues to hang out in the shadows of the venue until Johnny happens to notice her uncanny resemblance to his wife. Without the ability to convince him otherwise, Nelly slowly begins imitating herself, playing the part of her own doppelgänger, in order to reclaim not only their relationship but the entire face of the past.
From the ashes of film noir, Phoenix is imbued with a fiery independent spirit in its analysis of memory and identity- its graceful deconstruction and reconstruction. Chris Marker’s essay film Sans Soleil (1983) philosophizes Hitchock’s Vertigo (1958) as a film of “impossible memory,” citing Scotty (Jimmy Stewart)’s character as “time’s fool of love, finding it impossible to live with memory without falsifying it” in his invention of Madeline (Kim Novak)’s double. The concept in Phoenix is a congruous forge of vanished personality, but the setup is more related to the type of scheming that’s devised in the tryst between the two trope-types in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), for example, which is to say the plot arranged by Johnny is a con monetarily motivated- the pilfering of Nelly’s family inheritance. But the film transcends the initial deception in what is clearly a tragic case of nostalgia on Nelly’s behalf to become a more beautifully twisted meditation on grief, self-possession, truth, and the transitory.
While the rebuilding of the relationship between the recovering Nelly and Johnny is focal, paralleling the country’s need to rebuild in the literal sense, Lene’s presence adds a deeply emotional tension that oscillates between her sisterly concern and unrequited love. Nina Hoss approaches her role as Nelly (playing Esther) almost as a silent film character, shifting and speaking with great trepidation. Her performance not only expresses the physical and psychological damage of WWII (that the film handles most intelligently) but more personally suggests a metaphorically chrysalis state or the titular bird of classical mythology, awaiting her moment to shed the scars of oppression and ascend into the light anew.
Here’s to Phoenix rising again in Madison — on UW campus screens, at Sundance, anywhere.