A great allegory has to function perfectly on two levels. It must be rich with social, political or historical implications, but it also has to be a good story.
By Noah Gittell
A great allegory has to function perfectly on two levels. It must be rich with social, political or historical implications, but it also has to be a good story. Even if viewers don’t pick up on the subtext, they should still be entertained. This is where “Phoenix,” a thoughtful but disengaging German drama, fails. Its rich metaphorical foundation is admirable – there are several possible allegorical meanings, and the film could surely inspire a spirited analysis. But when a film makes so little effort to engage or entertain the viewer, those discussions are unlikely to take place, and the film won’t have much of an impact.
“Phoenix” begins in the first days after World War II. Nelly (Nina Hoss), a German Jew, survived a stint at Auschwitz but, after taking a bullet to the face, requires reconstructive surgery. The doctor suggests she pick a brand-new face, but she insists that he make her look as much like her old self as possible. She returns to Berlin to try to track down her husband Johnny, who miraculously avoided imprisonment. A friend has warned her that Johnny betrayed her to the Nazis, so Nina sets out to find the truth, and if possible, reconnect to the only family member still alive.
In the bombed-out city, it doesn’t take her long to find Johnny at a local bar (named “Phoenix”), but their reunion never quite occurs. The surgery has only accomplished half the job; Johnny recognizes her only as someone who looks quite like his wife, whom he presumes has died, and he decides to use this apparent doppelganger to collect his wife’s inheritance. And so the confused husband sets out remaking his wife in the image of…his wife.
As a story, it stretches the viewer’s ability to suspend disbelief. Does this husband really not know his wife’s voice, or her touch? Why doesn’t she simply tell him who she is? The film uses the trauma of war as a catchall to explain every inexplicable character choice, but it’s more likely that these plot points were created to serve the filmmaker’s choice of metaphor, not the story itself. Yes, there is plenty to linger over here. Nina’s failed attempt to recapture her pre-war life symbolizes the irreversible impact of war on Germany’s social fabric or on the Jewish people. Or maybe it’s just an exploration of personal traumas, and how they play out between loved ones. Then, of course, there is the allegorical title, which alludes to the rebirth of a city, a person, or even humanity itself.
All of these readings are feasible, but none of them quite stick because writer/director Christian Petzold fails to tend to the basic tenets of cinematic storytelling. He rarely lets us inside the heads of his lead characters; he eschews any artistic flourishes and does not even give viewers a musical score to emotionally guide them through the story. In his hands, what could be a deeply emotional tale of love and loss between a husband and wife is just cold and sterile.
Maybe there is something admirable about this. Coming near the end of a summer movie season of sequels and reboots that pander to the lowest common denominator, it is refreshing to come upon a movie that trusts the audience to find its own way through a story. Not only does it respect the viewer enough to avoid spelling out every theme and character note, but it’s an original story with real depth, meaning, and historical relevance. At best, it’s a transitional movie that cleanses the palate before the fall season of prestige pictures commences.
But that’s an intellectual justification for a movie that demands respect without ever giving anything in return. At least, not until the film’s bravura final scenes. If “Phoenix” should be celebrated for anything, it should be for its perfect ending, in which the subtlety of the previous 90 minutes pays off in a clear and powerful moment of drama. It’s never too late for a rebirth, unless the audience has nodded off by then.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue