Phoenix (2015)

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“Show me your face!”

Our skin is the biggest organ we have, the frail encasing which literally keeps us together. And it’s as easily torn as holiday wrapping paper, housing the things inside that make us ourselves, the organic nature of us all. But unlike the decorative paper thrown to the side and recycled or wasted, our gift – our skin – has the amazing capability of regeneration. The process is the definition of awesome; observing this living thing fix itself without being told or actively enacted is something to inspire wonder. You are probably asking yourself what the hell I’m rambling on about. Rightfully so. But I say all this because of the experience I felt while watching Phoenix. Hidden in this deeply steeped noir tale of mystery and thrills, we find an ambitious story about defined personhood. The what, who, when, and where that we believe makes us who we are. Or, in short, the perception of “me.” The film is rich in ambience and powerfully intoxicating. It’s slowly burned, dragging in and exhaling out puff after puff, holding to a finish that leaves you in a stupor and an aghast exhale. Phoenix coolly and expertly crescendos.

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Nina Hoss stars as Nelly, a former cabaret singer left disfigured from a gunshot wound suffered in the concentration camps of the Holocaust. All of her family is gone, as she’s told by her friend and new caretaker Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), and she’s left a substantial inheritance to be collected. Nelly is torn, attempting to mourn the familial loss while determined to inquiry on Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Johnny is her husband, and all along we suspect a marital rift, mostly through the graceful and subtlety suspicious performance by Kunzendorf. Her bond with Nelly is almost that of mother and child. She doesn’t want to emotionally damage her friend anymore than she already has been physically, and yet, we’re sure the pain is going to come. The technique makes Phoenix a bit slow to start as we come to know and infer more than Nelly herself actually understands. But it pays off, unraveling the bloodied gauze of a betrayed woman a single layer at a time. Sometimes you can’t even trust the ones you love.

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I anticipated writing more about this movie, discussing what makes it such an extraordinary feat, but that’s for you to find on your own. The experience will be richer and fuller. It’s amazing how much intellectual fat there is on such a lean story. Directed by Christian Petzold, a frequent collaborator with Nina Hoss, Phoenix is laden with visual metaphors. This is extremely thrifty and economical filmmaking. Petzold is frugal. In the above shot, we’re shown Nelly’s fragmentation spurred by the disruption in her outward definition of self. And in another, when we find out a character has killed themself, all we get is a rolled up rug in the center of a room. Petzold hides the blood and emphasizes the atmosphere, placing us in a world unknown by all. The authenticity that comes with it is, for that very reason, nothing short of remarkable.

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Petzold’s writing and directing are ambitious vehicles to be driven by his cast. Kunzendorf treads in and out of the story, but Hoss and Zerhfeld are both awards worthy. Zerhfeld somehow pulls off the scheming, duplicitous nature of Johnny while giving him a sense of regret and sorrow. He’s the maestro and the conductor to Nelly, ushering around and critiquing a woman he believes to be near her identical twin, yet refuses to acknowledge who she is. Reassuring Nelly, as she slowly attempts to build up her identity, happily playing house with the man she “loves”, that should she go into the world she will go unseen and unnoticed. And finally, that is why Hoss, in my opinion, deserves one of the five Best Female Actress slots.

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As the silently shrill Nelly, Nina Hoss delivers an intrepid performance inhabiting an apprehensive and jittery woman dashed with the recollections of her confinement while dwelling in her once love lost state of mind. Phoenix, titled after the club where she finds her Johnny again, himself reduced to the surrounding rubble, is a film about the self. The battle with the past while trying to emphasize the present. Every so often a movie will leave you longing for more; the ending delivers no satisfaction. This is a hard film, one that must be read with the eyes and the mind, but just before the credits roll and the lights come up, we’re hit with a knockout punch. Phoenix is an emotional haymaker. When something is this good, this soundly and formidably told, we should be happy to absorb the hit, floundering to the ropes and dwindling to the mat in a bashing stir of fits.

“I no longer exist.”

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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