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  • Sasho Pshenko

Moving Through the Worlds of Christian Petzold’s Phoenix

Christian Petzold’s gripping and complex post-WWII drama, Phoenix, is a masterful exercise in guilt and catharsis. Sasho Pshenko revisits the film’s undeniable links to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the kinetic and psychic movement of characters through the worlds of both films.

Phoenix 2014 Christian Petzold The Pittsburgher Vertigo Hitchcock
Illustration: The Pittsburgher

How do you set out to make a successful pastiche of Hitchcock’s Vertigo? One would guess Christian Petzold asked himself this question when deciding to loosely adapt Hubert Monteilhet’s 1961 novel Le Retour des Cendres. The resultant film, Phoenix (2014), a mysterious drama of love, impersonation, and fake doubles, manages to, on the one hand, not satirize the cinematic classic – in fact, one could say that it almost glorifies it – yet on the other hand it undeniably depletes the recognizable narrative formulas of their thematic weight, filling in their “husk” with the contents of a completely different story. In a way, while being obviously reminiscent of it, Phoenix makes the Vertigo within itself die, only so that it can be reborn as a new film – kind of like the titular bird. But, by the end of it, it does leave the viewer wondering: can something reborn as a completely different entity be said to derive any sort of artistic momentum from its predecessor? Did it not, by emptying out the already famous story, mark an even more radical break with it than it would have had it not referenced it at all? And, fittingly, does the story of Petzold’s film itself not imply a kind of break with the notion of the mythical conception of the phoenix – not as a creature that dies, nor as a creature that gets reborn, but as one that needs to learn to transcend this monotonous, repetitive existence?

Set immediately after the end of World War II, Phoenix follows Nelly (Nina Hoss), a Jewish (former) cabaret singer who travels back to Germany accompanied by her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), hoping to reunite with her German husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). There is, however, one crucial obstacle: during the Holocaust Nelly’s face had been disfigured and even though she underwent reconstructive surgery, she now only vaguely looks like her former self (who is presumed to have died). Going under the name of Esther, she is focused exclusively on locating Johnny. There is a possibility, though, highlighted by Lene, that it was in fact Johnny who sold out Nelly to the Nazis, making their potential reunion not only (presumably) dangerous but also disillusioning, as Nelly would be returning to the man who betrayed her. Further complications arise when Johnny does not recognize Nelly, but seeing her facial similarity to her former self, undertakes the “project” of remodeling Esther in the image of (the presumed dead) Nelly, for the purpose of presenting her to their (German) friends, and having her sing to them, thus lifting their morale after the war.

The similarities to Vertigo are numerous. Starting with the dual identity ascribed to the “faceless” woman, both films deal with the notion of an intuitive bond connecting the woman to her former lover, as well as the lover’s quest to physically mold her in an effort to resurrect a ghost from the past – not knowing that that ghost is precisely her. Both films highlight the blindness and toxicity of love through the ironic discrepancy between the almost mythologized idea of a person and their real self. And, while one can draw other connective lines between the films, it suffices to say that there is at least one crucial difference which makes the gulf between them insurmountable: the all-pervading role of the social milieu, which makes Phoenix less a mystery of individuals trying to find and rediscover each other, than a representation of a fractured, traumatized world, overshadowed by a yet incomprehensible catastrophe, refracted in the worldviews of several people who appear to have lost themselves. At the end of the day, isn’t Nelly’s literal defacement a perfect correspondence to the defaced global landscape? Isn’t her romantic quest an effort to reorient herself and find her lost spatio-temporal compass? Is Phoenix not, first and foremost, a story of Holocaust survivors desperately trying to make sense of what happened?

Hence why instead of the all-present, all-encompassing spiral which haunts Vertigo, here we have the figure of the road – the empty, directionless landscape on which the movement of the characters is inscribed; the motion of running, rushing, desperately chasing someone or something defining the three main characters – Nelly/Esther, Lene, and Johnny. Now, this frenetic movement is not necessarily physical; in fact, most of the time it is a movement in place, contrary to how, for example, in Vertigo characters are constantly moving, traveling, while the mental, atmospheric spaces they inhabit are as if suspended and immobile – the green dream-world of Madeleine, the paralyzed, acrophobic world of Scottie – the absolute fantasy, as opposed to the hidden reality.

The characters in Phoenix, however, do not delve into the worlds they seek, but are trying to grasp them as they are slipping through their fingers. In fact, these worlds are already “dead and buried,” which additionally makes the desire to resurrect them that much more panicked, albeit futile. It is as if the characters cannot wait to get rid of the veil, the annoying spider-web which has gotten into their faces and is obscuring their vision of a life they think they still know (as they once used to) – Nelly cannot wait to get back with Johnny and reveal to him the truth, Lene cannot wait to travel to Palestine and find her home in the new Jewish country (similarly, she cannot wait to get Johnny out of Nelly’s mind), Johnny cannot wait to impose the image of the dead Nelly onto Esther – their impatience leading them to even resort to semi-violent methods. Unlike Hitchcock’s classic, Petzold’s film does not lead to the reveal of one “true” world underneath, but to the reveal of something far more disconcerting, although far more liberating too. But to get there, one would first need to examine these worlds in detail and see what makes them as they are – so seductive, but so incongruous with reality.

There is one more question we need to answer: why is the protagonist reversed? Why is it the faceless woman and not the Pygmalion-man, as in Vertigo? Why start a quest to uncover the unknown by following the unknown, the unstable and unreliable? Aren’t most stories (especially mysteries) supposed to start from a position of relative stability and immerse the protagonist (and the viewers with them) into a realm of increasing uncertainty? Why reverse this movement and make Nelly and not Johnny the one through whose perspective we experience the unraveling of the thread of truth? We could claim that it is because Phoenix is not a mystery of the unknown woman, nor of her story, but of the opposition between the two worlds in which Nelly and Esther live – she is not the object to be uncovered, but the adventurer who is out to unfold the world hidden within her. This film, unlike Vertigo, follows not an isolated inner journey, but one that needs to be mediated by the outside. To clarify, this is not a simple opposition between the objectification and mystification of a woman on the one side, and her acquiring a voice to tell her own story on the other; the biggest mystery remains Nelly, she is still the faceless, unknown woman, yet not because Johnny does not know her (nor because she does not know herself), but because she has to come to terms with what she is (and is not) and to rethink the way she would position herself in this new world.

This “new world” is what we all know as the post-WWII world. Countless victims, global confusion and chaos, personal and social losses on a hitherto unseen scale. Johnny, Nelly’s love, has betrayed her, she has suffered a complete dehumanization – both physical and emotional – during her time in a concentration camp, Lene is filled with a justified, yet overwhelming anger against enemies who, whilst not unspecified, are not suitable to be the recipients of her vengeance anymore. It is a time of chaos, but, like in other times of chaos, what characterizes it most strongly are people’s attempts to rebuild their lives in its rubble – either by ignoring the immediate past, or by preparing for a hopeless (and by this time superfluous) counterattack. The fake worlds of Nelly, Johnny, and Lene are, thus, variations of such futile attempts.

One would then ask: which is the world of the film itself? It is none of the above. It is the world of Esther – Nelly reborn – the fake persona, the weak-willed woman, dragged around by her friend and her lover. It is the empty world without a story, the world which is waiting for its story to be written and its parameters defined. The movement of the film corresponds to this world’s attempts to appropriate and impersonate the other three worlds, as well as to its realization that they are all fake, dead, or hopeless. Until the very end, this world, along with its carrier, Esther, is like a parasite. It has a desperate need for a host, someone to attach itself to, a familiar home, a fairy tale, a face, so to speak, which would define it.

This category of the face corresponds to what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, in A Thousand Plateaus (1980), and some of their other works, refer to as the “terrestrial signifying despotic face.” It is assigned the role of a despotic stabilizer – a system which corresponds to a rigid cognitive and social formation, the aim of which is to impose a strict, recognizable language upon the world, a story, a referential anchor, as it were. This face and its corresponding landscape (a connection also established by Deleuze and Guattari) are necessarily reflexive, as they not only reflect each other, but also provide a screen and mirror of resonance for all the elements of the world which they encounter (and subjugate). In other words, this is the notion of a “familiar face” and a “safe space,” the stable axis which would present Nelly with already predefined terms that would position her in relation to Johnny, to her Jewishness, to her trauma, and to her relationship with the past and the present. The worlds mentioned above, in fact, are all alternative reflexive faces of this kind, ready-made narratives which would provide something of a comfort-zone. These worlds lack movement, since they all function as the final destination towards which the movement of Nelly, Lene, and Johnny is headed. They are all static worlds, uncovered landscapes, recognizable faces, a nostalgic embrace.

The first world to be defined in this way would be that of Johnny. His is the world which corresponds to the “lightest” WWII trauma, the one which tries to keep on functioning as if it were still a pre-WWII world. To a degree, understandably so, as Johnny (and his friends) are Germans who (as it is discovered) collaborated with the Nazis, lost the war, but did not lose their lives. They had the opportunity to “pick a side” and to them the aftermath of the war is nothing more than a negligible status quo, one which can be ignored and shouldered through. Moreover, being allowed by his privilege to overlook the heft of his treachery, Johnny wants to have it absolved as quickly as possible, to make a Nelly-puppet out of Esther and comfort himself with it. He might have betrayed her and gotten her killed (as he believes), but here she is, alive and well, singing to him, reminding him that everything will be alright, just like before. But this would still not be enough, for a “personal Nelly” is not the “real Nelly” – she is a fantasy and an illusion, not a world and a face. For this reason she has to be presented in front of his friends, and has to enact a melodramatic reunion, to offer consolidation to them as well. Johnny is willing to paint the make-up of a happy face on a dead woman’s skull just to show that the world still turns, the sun still rises, things can, and already are, getting back to “normal.” And the sooner he gets to this world, the easier it would be for him to ignore his suppressed guilt, which is why he, like Nelly and Lene, is mindlessly rushing; to get her ready, to rehearse her performance, to get it over with.

In complete contrast to this is the world of Lene, a Jew, to whom Johnny’s treachery is of biblical proportions. This is the world of WWII’s trauma, pain, and still-festering wounds. Lene lives in a void of resentment and hatred, yet one which still has the light of hope within it – the idea of Palestine, the place that will finally feel like home. But what kind of a hope is this exactly? The notion of Palestine is idealized, true, yet not for the peaceful life which it would provide, but for the power of retribution it would give to all the people who, like Lene, have had everything taken away from them. Lene is led by a bitter, angry, and reactive hope, a hope which is justified, but absurd in (somewhat) denying that, after all, the world still does turn and that the sun still does rise, bloody as it might be. Hers is the world of unmeasured, ironic tragedy, because, prompted by the horrors inflicted on her and her loved ones by fascist thought, she, herself, has become a sort of a radical militant too. Projecting fascism’s relentless drive toward absolute annihilation of everything outside it, she too envisions an act of self-abolition as an ultimate moment of “crowning glory,” the only fitting end to her violent quest. In light of this, Lene’s suicide is not an act of surrendering, but a testament to her rushing through her pain, through her revenge, straight into a final auto-destruction.

Finally, there is the world of Nelly. This is neither a pre-WWII world, like Johnny’s, nor a post-WWII world, like Lene’s, but a no-WWII world, an idyllic realm of romance and love, a world of childish ignorance. It is here that we should be looking for the phoenix, because this is the world in which the night club Phoenix, where Nelly used to perform, takes center-stage, but also the world in which Nelly hopes to resurrect herself exactly as she used to be, like the titular bird. She frantically rushes to get to this world, but it is through humiliation, offenses, and dehumanization that she is led to it. Lene constantly criticizes Nelly’s intelligence and guilts her about her desires, but Johnny is the one who truly turns his back on whoever he thinks Nelly (or Esther) might be – he is dismissive and verbally, psychologically, and somewhat even physically violent toward her. Perhaps this is so because Nelly’s world is, arguably, the most dysfunctional, the one which is most obviously unachievable, nothing more than a myth. Any attempt to bring it back (as it, obviously, never existed, except in her mind), would see her agency absolutely diminished, she would be doomed to be patronized and infantilized, reduced either to Johnny’s plaything (and the victim of his treachery), or to Lene’s militant underling (a vengeful, suicidal rebel).

Only when this third, final option is discarded, can we get to the real world, the world of Esther and, fittingly, the world of Phoenix. This world, too, corresponds to a face, but not to the static, stabilizing one – in it, one encounters a whole row of profiled faces, facing each other, or turning away from one another, all headed towards an absorbing black hole of destabilization. Deleuze and Guattari claim that the union between these faces (these incompatible worlds) is simultaneously an insurmountable separation and a mutual betrayal. The headlong rushing toward the abyss; the irreconcilable gulf not only between the lovers (Nelly and Johnny), but between Esther and Nelly’s worlds; all the resentment and turning away, which is being infinitely proliferated; the irreparable damage of WWII and of Johnny’s betrayal: it all culminates here – not in the localization of a destination (the establishment of a landscape) but in the eternal movement, movement for movement’s sake, the escape away from the landscape and onto the road. All the roads continue on this road, helping it break apart the fake worlds, fake landscapes, and fake faces around it. And it is only in this way, with their different faces facing each other in profile, that a continuity between Nelly and Esther can be established – not through Johnny, nor through Lene, but through “Speak Low,” Nelly/Esther’s song, the refrain.

The final song quite fittingly fulfills a double function of both stabilizing the familiar (Johnny finally recognizing Esther as Nelly and breaking under the pressure of his guilt), and marking the movement of drastic change, a cutting transformation of the headlong dive toward the abyss into a liberated flight in the direction of a new freedom, far beyond any of the worlds discussed above, far beyond, even, the profiled faces. Precisely this is the final movement of Petzold’s Phoenix, the movement which breaks with all the worlds and all the roads, which breaks with Vertigo’s spiral by becoming the absolute road. Esther sings her song in front of her pitiful audience, leaving Johnny incapable to proceed with his own performance. The exact same things which, until that moment, burdened her – her love for Johnny, the pain of his betrayal, her pain for Lene, her desire for revenge (somewhat of an oath to Lene in itself) – are suddenly what empowers her to truly become herself, that is, Esther. She throws away Lene’s unused gun and she turns her back on Johnny, finishing her song and leaving the house, being finally set free. In this exact same way, like how Esther “donned” Nelly’s face, only to outgrow and discard it, so Petzold “donned” the appearance of Hitchcock’s film, made it his own and, finally, marked a break with it, leaving the cursed tragedy of Scottie and Madeleine behind, while mapping out a new melody, which would dissolve all landscapes and faces into the mystery of the unknown. ▲

Sasho Pshenko is a Film Aesthetics graduate from the University of Oxford, with a background in Comparative Literature. Torn between desires for both academia and practical filmmaking, he spends his time pondering over various topics from the fields of literature, film, and philosophy.

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