James Stewart almost quit acting after WWII. He needed to reassess, and, to some extent, he had to be coaxed back after his combat experience. Hitchcock helped with this process, revitalizing him creatively, but also reinventing him as a darker, coarser version of himself. Then, over the course of several films together, he deconstructed this process, and tapped the recesses of his anxiety. The pre-war All-American boy was frayed at the ends and the seams started to show at the hands of The Master. Never was this more visible than in Vertigo, a lush dreamscape that picked at Stewart’s sinewy subconscious. In this haunted film, Stewart’s John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson traverses an uncannily sparse, vibrantly surreal San Francisco, enlisted to tail an acquaintance’s wife, a woman who seems to be possessed. This thread runs its course in traumatic fashion, and he spends the remainder of the film chasing the specter of his fragile memory. It’s a dreamscape designed around the psychology of fixation, and meaning is always just beyond reach. In the process, desperation leads to a tumble down the primal folds of the human mind.
Berlin functions similarly in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix. It’s a dream of postwar Berlin—predatory American GIs looking for spoils, beautiful, contained piles of rubble next to gothic architecture, near-empty streets, shadowy corridors, blind street performers, and phantom night clubs. It’s too picturesque by design, too pristine, too composed and immaculate in its desolation to be a real space. There are such markers up and down the film that suggest its unreality but this is never commented on and never above a whisper. The film takes its name from the nightclub where the plot turns, a crimson-hued lounge in the “American district” where ids spill over. It’s a very Lynchian space in its design and abstraction, recalling The Slow Club, Silencio, or even the radiator stage and chipmunk-cheeked singer of Eraserhead—oases of grotesque beauty and contorted solace in decimated wastelands—which, of course, are directly descended from Vertigo—Ernie’s Restaurant, in particular—and similarly explore Hitchcockian fascinations.
In the opening of Phoenix, two women, Lene and a bandaged, severely injured Nelly, cross a check point heading back to Berlin—the first of many imaginary lines in the film. Nelly has been shot through the jaw while at a concentration camp. She soon undergoes extensive reconstructive surgery that makes her face nearly unrecognizable even to her. Lene, acting as her guardian for the early going, helps secure her a room while she recovers, all the while, helping to tie up the particulars of her considerable and intact estate before they flee the country. As she recovers, Nelly is consumed by the desire to track down her husband Johnny. She finds him in the titular night club; he now goes by Johannes (another identity in crisis). Nelly encounters him but doesn’t confront him. He doesn’t recognize her but finds her similar in appearance enough to his believed-dead wife to enlist her in plot to recreate her as her. That is, he wants to dress her up and teach her the mannerisms of the wife he believes he lost to the camps in the war, with the end goal of getting her estate. She goes along with the scheme, opening up a vast network of identity crises and perceptual conundrums (not to mention metadiegetic threads) in the process.
She, already distanced from the woman she was before the war, is meant to portray this version of herself, but from the particular vantage of her husband. She, in essence, is attempting to reconstruct herself in three directions at once (at least)—the new her, as proposed by Lene, her own memory of her identity, and her husband’s view of who she was and how she acted. On top of this are the complications of the other vying identity crises at play. And, there is the overarching unreality and dream-logic to account for, not to mention the popular cultural signifiers high and low that are touched on to complicate any one reading or any single perception. It’s a broken mirror of a film that somehow, at film’s end, finds a way to piece things together in a single devastating note.
Early in the film, Nelly goes under anesthesia for her reconstructive surgery; perhaps she never woke up from this, and all that we see is but a wish-fulfillment dreamscape where the bits and pieces of her personal drama are meted out in a clean, linear narrative. Or, perhaps she never survived the car ride, dying from her gunshot wounds on the bridge, just beyond the checkpoint in the opening scene. Or, maybe she never made it out of the camp, succumbing to the fatal shot before help arrived. Petzold creates just enough uncertainty and just enough remove that it all seems feasible. He finds a multitude of ambiguity in the no-man’s-land of the mind and in the liminality of the cinema. Whereas some films stratify perception, Phoenix fragments it into crystalline shards. It’s a crack that spirals outward from the epicenter, a canvas of restraint allowing interpretation to color perception and experience and significance.
There is a lot of deep philosophy at work in Phoenix befitting the unspeakably somber themes it is trafficking in, and it hits these notes with appropriate depth. But it is not without levity, and it strangely points in directions that are quite askew given its pedigree, which makes it a rare gem. It’s an artistically-minded film to be sure, and an exemplary next step in post-New German Cinema. But, Phoenix evokes many points of reference, which is rather remarkable considering its muted tone. Some predilections are expected while others point to styles and tropes that exist far outside the traditional purview of stately postwar melodramas. Vertigo is the most obvious reference here, but lines can also be drawn to Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, Edward Scissorhands, The Invisible Man, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun, Douglas Sirk, probably Imitation of Life, an inside-out Ladykillers or She’s All That, The Third Man, Germany Year Zero, Out of the Past, and maybe some of the more restrained efforts from David Cronenberg, to name just a few. Its narrative hook is taken straight from many a romantic comedy or a musical or a horror film; it’s uncertain exactly which, but finds some improbable overlap. The incoherent patchwork befits the hollowed-out, perhaps irrevocable psyche of the main character, post-war Germany, and of human society in the wake of WWII.
Petzold takes a minimalist approach to addressing the multi-layered psychological conundrum of fathoming the sheer quantity and toll of the Holocaust, acknowledging this cognitive impossibility and constricting and filtering liberally—starting with a seemingly coherent headspace and mounting the complications until the foundation itself is faulty. He employs ample but understated artifice, and a hermetic setting and shooting style that emphasizes tunnel-vision, literalizing the compartmentalization of the mind through plot and style with a startling economy. The film has a decided and purposeful lack of scope. The city, all rubble and sumptuous light, is accessed at street-level, the remains of bombed-out buildings framed-in and explored mostly from a medium distance. It is a film that makes immense use out of the middle ground. The shooting style and pace brings things in tight, but never tight enough to feel overly intimate. There is a remove and chilliness at the core, until an ember sparks in the final moments.
What makes Phoenix such an interesting study is that it not only divides perception between its main characters but also between the leads’ perceptions of self. The two leads are operating on different planes and the choreography of knowledge plays a big role in both their engagement in the scenes and our experience of them. They are in the process of telling adjacent stories that inevitably dovetail. They are playing characters in colliding iterative fictions. Each is chasing an ego ideal that no longer exists postwar. Typical cognition bends under the weight of trauma. Reality and fantasy comingle, one always threatening to consume the other, but with little certainty at any one point as to which is taking hold. In Phoenix, small fissures turn into rabbit-hole vortexes.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.