I wasn’t alive during World War II, so I can only speculate the degrees of desperation many of its survivors succumbed to in its wake, but surely no one was as despicable as Johnny is in Phoenix. Here is a man who, according to this story, sells his wife to the Nazis moments after secretly divorcing her, leaves her to die in Auschwitz, sheds not a tear for his lost love, then proceeds to terrorise a young lady, who he thinks looks like his departed, in a fashion so demented Scottie Ferguson would be proud.
Usually the kind of information I’ve just divulged would be considered a major spoiler, but Phoenix does absolutely nothing to preserve Johnny’s innocence; it believes he’s guilty from the get-go, so I’m running with it.
What’s up with this guy? Why did he get married in the first place? Okay, so we are told that his plan now is to dress this young lady up to look like his wife Nelly, present her to a group of friends as a miraculous survivor of the concentration camps, then presumably make off with his wife’s real estate (in her death, apparently, he can’t touch her fortune because he divorced her, which makes the whole divorce issue rather cloudy). This informs us of his motive. Fair enough. But is there no other way to get his hands on the money? Why is he so obsessive and rude? Does he feel guilt for betraying his wife? Nothing about his tone or actions indicates he does.
The lady he wants to transform is actually Nelly (Nina Hoss), rescued from the camps, disfigured and damaged. She undergoes extensive facial reconstruction and insists she look exactly like she did before. Tough luck there. After recovering, she meets Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) at a cabaret, stands two inches from his face and remains unidentifiable. Either Johnny’s a douchebag or the surgeon who did Nelly should consider retirement.
Nelly is so excited to see Johnny again she refuses to acknowledge the red flags raised by her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), who keeps her distance and is hardly ever seen without a cigarette. She tells Nelly of the rumours circulating — that Johnny sold her out for his own safety. She reprimands her for gallivanting around the streets of Berlin alone at night and buys her a revolver, like all good friends should. Lene’s plan is for the both of them to move to Palestine where a new life awaits. Nelly’s plan is to go along with Johnny’s ridiculous scheme, hoping he’ll fall in love with her all over again when she finally reveals her true identity.
Phoenix is written and directed by Christian Petzold, but it’s the production design by Kade Gruber that stamps it with character. From the intimate interior settings of Lene’s rented apartment to the smoky train platforms, we are encapsulated in a bubble of post-war Germany. There is not a leaf out of place. Phoenix, then, becomes a movie that exists as a bubble itself, because it is so concentrated on its time and place that it forgets to support its characters with emotional reasoning. If Johnny’s a real nasty person for treating Nelly the way he does, then Nelly’s a real naive victim for thinking she still has a future with this guy. She is lovestruck, for sure. That I understand. What I don’t understand, if she adores this wretch so, is why she never sheds a tear for herself.
Best Moment | The ending.
Worst Moment | Johnny.