Identities intimate and societal, opaque and translucent, course through the veins of the somewhat curatorial Phoenix, although complexities are little more than skin deep when the curtains are called at the end. Christian Petzold’s film about personal and national visage talks a mighty talk, entangling itself in historical woes and post-Holocaust turmoil in a museum-bound Austrian society. Of course, a tale about a woman Nelly (Nina Hoss), recently returned from a Nazi death camp with a surgically altered face can’t but wade in the murk of history, especially when said woman reintroduces herself to her husband (Johnny or Johannes, played by Ronald Zehrfeld) who doesn’t seem to recognize her but finds a use for the new face that she wields anyway.
After some time, the film ultimately reveals its hand: a Hitchcockian potboiler set to chill, with Vertigo never far from memory as Johnny, who may have sold Nelly out to the Nazis in the first place and believes her to be dead, plans to pass off Nelly, who now goes by Esther, as herself to her family in hopes of running away with her inheritance money. Ethical grey zones hover like flies as he sculpts her to reconstruct the memory of his ex-wife, perhaps out of guilt for his presumed crime against her, or perhaps out of a male power fantasy. Nelly, embodied sublimely in the tragically cracked face of Petzold’s muse Hoss, plays along for murky reasons of her own, subsuming herself into the swamp of her past life in hopes of potentially recreating it, or in fear of proving that Johnny truly had given her up to the Nazi bully.
So there’s quite a bit to chew on in Phoenix, even if Petzold isn’t always up to tenderizing everything he bites off. Suggestions of the decrepit, morally allusive world of the noir unmask themselves from time to time, and you can’t blame Petzold for returning to that particular well (the noir is a frequently tapped well of post-war commentary, after all). But the sojourns to film noir prove insufficient and infrequent; outside of the druglike haze enveloping the nightclub Johannes works in, itself titled Phoenix, Petzold proves unwilling to grappling fully with the possibilities of this presentational style. A film about deceptive identity and diaphanous masks is right to pine for the shadowy deceit and social artifice of a noir world, but Petzold’s European realist background too often gets in the way of cinematically confronting the implications of artifice.
A problem that proves the film’s Achilles Heel, especially in the second half when Petzdold’s framing style too frequently resorts to anonymous, tepid two-shots and shot-reverse-shot conversations that merely shuttle the narrative along without meaningfully illuminating theme, atmosphere, or character. Phoenix is a film all about the illusive walking ghosts of the past set about society and the untamed memories of history grasping your throat like a claw. The film avoids even suggesting the untapped question about how cinema relates to these memories, a problematic misstep and a wasted opportunity to debate with the ways that film relies on similar masks to stitch together implausibilities and construct narrative out of thin air. Johannes is essentially staging a cinema, but Petzfold is disinterested in this provocative connection. Especially for a film that, taken literally, makes little sense, the failures of the film to visually explore the allegorical possibilities of the past creeping up on you in film form is distressing to say the least.
Phoenix’s relative failures are exacerbated in comparison to, say, Carol Reed’s The Third Man, a similar work about a walking specter who encapsulates the failures of communication and humanity in a post-war world. That film’s expressionist visual style moved beyond the manifest into the latent questions of cinematic memory, introducing itself to the question of whether cinematic escapism can truly address questions of war and death. Later films under the noir umbrella pushed the limits of the genre to abominable, apocalyptic depths and explored humanity in frightening caverns while also implicating themselves in their own fictionality. Take a look at Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, a work that comments on the white-washing of race by permitting Charlton Heston to rampantly fail as the whitest Mexican in the world. In Welles’ cheeky, self-reflexive commentary on Hollywood casting conventions, the film implicates its very being in the manifestation of fictional identity in film. The film itself wears a mask, rather than asking the characters to and then letting itself off the hook as an objective fact.
In comparison, Phoenix is a too-literal thriller that refuses to navigate its internal questions beyond their most hum-drum, surface-level nature in the narrative. It’s a fine, functional, often thoughtful slice of melodrama, sufficiently clipped to prevent saccharine over-indulgence. Hoss, for her part, is intoxicating in the role, single-handedly casting doubt on the film’s otherwise superficial status. But the musings of a great film remain under-developed and lost somewhere in the film’s head. As entertainment, it’s a sleek and competent work of craft, mounted with an eye for clarity and concision (the minutes fly by, to say the least) but it is all the more depressing for the suggestion of so much more brimming just underneath the surface.
Rather than marinating itself in the contortion of post-war identity, the film sees fit to rely on the Holocaust as a crutch upon which to coax audience members into admitting it to the art house or the Oscar ceremony. This is morally dubious but acceptable as cinema if the film didn’t insist so heavily on its moral curiosities in the first place (or, if the film had more gamely conceded its trashy airs and played up its sexually frustrated quandaries or grimy exploitation film premise, maybe the failures of the film as an intellectual wallop might be more forgivable). In other words, an aesthetic, whatever aesthetic, is preferable to a work that mixes the slightly cool and the slightly heated and reclines into luke-warm. For a film all about the disconnects between the world at a presentational level and the more elusive, subcutaneous fluidity of truth underneath, Phoenix ultimately proves unable to flexibly move back and forth between both levels. It’s surface-bound, and not in the way it wants to be.