|Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Hoss|
The German director Christian Petzold garnered some deserved attention for his 2012 movie Barbara, which told the story of an East German doctor (Nina Hoss) in the 1980s, banished to a country hospital as punishment for applying for an exit visa, who plots to defect but is sidelined by her emotional involvement in the case of a female patient. As a chronicle of life in East Germany in the years before the Berlin Wall came down, Barbara is smaller-scale than The Lives of Others – one of a small handful of movies since the millennium that truly deserve to be called masterpieces – but it demonstrates a piecing intelligence, a gift for working with actors (Hoss gives a superlative performance), and an easy mastery of film vocabulary. It’s an elegant and fiercely compelling piece of moviemaking, and I think that Phoenix, his new picture, is even better.
Petzold is again working with his co-writer on Barbara, Harun Farocki, and again features Hoss opposite the fine actor Ronald Zehrfeld, who played the head of the clinic Barbara is exiled to. In Phoenix Hoss, in a performance of profound tremulous feeling, plays Nelly Lenz, a Jewish cabaret singer who returns from the camps at the end of the Second World War so badly disfigured that she hides her face under a bandage. Her experience has left her so fragile that she barely seems able to function. She arrives back in Berlin under the care of another woman, Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf), who seems to have an administrative job that gives her access to government documents. (I think we’re meant to assume that Lene and Nelly met in the camps, but the movie is rather mysterious on the source of their association.) Lene guides her through reconstructive surgery that leaves her looking somewhat but not exactly like the woman she was before she was taken by the Nazis, and Lene makes plans for the two of them to emigrate to Israel. But Nelly didn’t think of herself as a Jew in the days before the Holocaust, and she still doesn’t. And what she wants is to find her Gentile husband Johnny, a pianist who hid her from the Gestapo in a boat until they finally caught up with her. Lene is convinced that it was Johnny who turned Nelly in at the end, but Nelly is still crazy about him and doesn’t believe her friend’s version of events. Haunting the seedier clubs, she locates Johnny (Zehrfeld), working not as a musician but as a waiter, and of course he doesn’t recognize her. But he notes her resemblance to his wife, who, he is certain, died during the war.
That’s when Phoenix becomes really intriguing. Johnny doesn’t know who Nelly is, and she doesn’t tell him; she gives her name as Esther. But he assesses her delicate state and assumes that she must be destitute, hanging around the club in the hopes of getting some work. He puts a proposition to her: he’s after his wife’s inheritance, and he’ll share it with Esther if she impersonates Nelly. And Nelly is so unmoored, so overjoyed at finding him again, that she sees his scheme as a way of starting fresh with him, of reliving the early days of their romance and pretending that they were never interrupted by the Nazis. It’s insane – like Scottie’s attempt to turn Judy into the dead Madeleine in Vertigo, which was clearly Petzold’s inspiration. (Presumably it was also the inspiration for Hubert Montheilet, whose novel Le retour des cendres, which translates as The Return of the Ashes, provided Petzold and Farocki with their source material; I haven’t read the book.) Like Judy, Nelly, as Esther, is taking on the role of a woman who never really died; the difference is that in Hitchcock’s movie she never really existed either. But Phoenix is in a sense a mirror image of Vertigo, because here the obsessed character isn’t the man who’s demanding the charade but the woman he’s seeking to transform.
Hoss and Zehrfeld play characters so remote from the ones they played in Barbara that you feel you’re watching amazingly versatile stock-company performers who might be able to handle anything Petzold threw at them. Hoss is essentially Petzold’s muse: this is the fifth movie she’s made with him. (She also appeared in last year’s gripping A Most Wanted Man, as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s assistant.) Tennessee Williams might have written the kind of woman she portrays in Phoenix, although the end of her arc moves her into a different realm. (It seems highly unlikely that any movie this year will have a more startling or more brilliantly directed finale than Phoenix.) Hoss is phenomenal in the scenes where Johnny treats her as his wife, though he’s only acting: when he kisses her in the street – really to shield her face from passersby because he hasn’t yet publicized her alleged return to their (non-Jewish) social set – she’s transported with joy. And as Lene, whose own fixation on Nelly seems clearly romantic, Nina Kunzendorf suggests the depth of despair beneath the veneer of professionalism and self-possession in another kind of Holocaust survivor. Kunzendorf’s stature hypnotizes the camera as much as her magnificent high-boned face.
Vertigo was a romantic melodrama with the sinister pull of a noir, and there’s definitely a noirish component to Phoenix, too, especially in Hans Fromm’s cinematography. In this case, though, the origin of the expressionistic visual style goes farther back, to the Weimar era, when you could see it on the screen and in the galleries and museums and in the satirical kabarett shows that Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill transformed with their Threepenny Opera (and that Bob Fosse evoked in Cabaret). In the club where Johnny serves drinks, a pair of showgirls, more eager than talented, perform late-twenties and early-thirties show tunes in kabarettstyle, as if Hitler had never wiped the country clean of what he called “degenerate” (read “Jewish”) art. They sing Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” first in German and then in English, and then they move onto a 1928 Weill number called “Berlin im Licht-Song.” (It’s a pity they don’t do it justice, but if you want to hear someone who does, check out Teresa Stratas’s version on The Unknown Kurt Weill or Donna Murphy’s on the original cast album for Lovemuk, in which she played Lotte Lenya and Michael Cerveris played Weill.) Weill is the other artist besides Hitchcock who hovers over Phoenix. On the soundtrack we hear his great, smoky love song “Speak Low (When You Speak Love),” with its mood of erotic urgency, in a setting for cello and piano, and later, at a crucial moment, we hear a vocal rendition. Weill wrote the tune for his most popular – really his only popular – Broadway show, One Touch of Venus, with Ogden Nash supplying the lyrics, and the fact that it came out during the war (in 1943) gives it, in this context, a more haunting resonance. Once he got to Broadway Weill’s unsettling, minor-key ballads were always more potent than the shows they turned up in (the exception was the adaptation he and Langston Hughes did of Elmer Rice’s Street Scene, perhaps the greatest music written for the American musical stage after Porgy and Bess). The way Petzold uses “Speak Low” here gives it its full due.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.