Phoenix: Facing the Music
Aug 18, 2015 by Nickelodeon on The Nickelodeon Blog
Starting with Muybridge, the human body has been cinema’s ultimate metaphor. The actor’s body contains every expressible human emotion, national identity, racial and ethnic signification, gender performance, entire histories collapsed into a vessel struggling under their weight—performing, in that way, the human condition. Christian Petzold’s newest film, Phoenix, fits into the sub-subgenre overtly concerned with the relationship of identity and performance: a combination of body horror and mistaken identity, Phoenix follows Eyes Without a Face, The Face of Another, Seconds, The Skin I Live In, and, err, Face/Off, in using the organizing trope of facial (re)construction to explore how the human body’s plasticity affects identity and the historical self.
Not merely an academic conundrum for Phoenix‘s Nelly (played with extraordinary subtlety and precision by Petzold’s regular collaborator Nina Hoss), she returns to 1945 Berlin after recovering from both her imprisonment in Auschwitz and facial reconstructive surgery, after a bullet wound. At the cabaret where she used to sing, she seeks out her husband, who she suspects sold her out to the Gestapo to save himself. He does not recognize her. Johnny (who now goes by a different name himself) sees only similarity, not identity, and asks her to impersonate the wife he believes to be dead in order to secure her estate. Over 98 excruciatingly tight minutes, these two unstable performances border on vertiginous, the centermost truth receding into the fog of war, the drift of history, the vagaries of personality. Being human becomes an argument, Nelly inhabiting a rhetorical position as much as a set of qualities or traits, and Johnny acting like the person he wants to be—innocent. Too restrained to be pulpy, too pulpy to be staid, Phoenix is an exemplar of cinema obsessed with how it creates and sustains historical narratives through human bodies subjected to the machinations of genre: mystery, noir, romance, and historiography itself.