Director: Christian Petzold
Synopsis: After undergoing facial reconstruction surgery, a Holocaust survivor goes looking for her husband, who may have sold her out to the Nazis.
Overview: People often perceive identity as something inherent to themselves, an inner truth which can be expressed or concealed at one’s will. Cinema traditionally backs this up; we’re drowning in narratives where the moral is “be yourself!” or “express your truth!” or some derivative version of the same. It’s rare to see a film argue another angle. “Your truth is what you choose to express, not the other way around!” isn’t quite so rousing a message. Christian Petzold’s Phoenix isn’t notable merely for taking that unique approach, but I’d be remiss not to lead with it. Having lost her original face to reconstructive surgery, Nelly (Nina Hoss), a concentration camp survivor in post-war Berlin, is desperate to reclaim her lost self. Despite the warning from her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) that Nelly’s husband Johnny (Roland Zehrfeld) likely betrayed her to the Nazis to save his own skin, Nelly goes looking for him. She’s in need of someone else to assure her of herself. She wants an outside entity to look at her and affirm that the way she feels inside is right.
Johnny doesn’t recognize her when they reunite, but he does remark that she bears a shocking resemblance to his late wife. Johnny coerces Nelly into a plot which I won’t give away. I’ll just say that it aims to tear down our notion of “self” as something internal and inalterable. Nelly is drawn back to Johnny because of her inability to reconcile her new appearance with her true identity, but through the course of the film we come to see that one’s identity is only ever one’s appearance. This isn’t to say that people are defined by the way they look, only that identity is performative. Nelly finds comfort in performing as herself, not seeing at first how this performance is not truly her own. She takes for granted that any confirmation of her inner self, by way of slightly altering her outer self, is an assertion of her truth.
But is something as complex as truth really so simple to understand? Phoenix says that it’s not, and the film is bold to do so. The idea that truth is inscribed on us, like, say, a concentration camp tattoo, rather than emanating out of us, isn’t exactly popular. Regardless, this isn’t a film with a negative outlook on its central theme. It encourages us to take control of that inscribing, to take an active role in embodying our identities and not allow others to make bodies for us. In the ending, and possibly the best scene in any film this year, Nelly’s truth bursts from within her in a moment of rapturous release. The emotional profundity of the scene isn’t a result of her having been burying that truth under a false exterior. This scene has her profess the reality of the exterior she’s worked so hard to construct, sublimely bridging the inner and outer. There are so few films like Phoenix. Whatever self you currently express, you’re doing it a disservice by not seeing this film.