Just after the war, a woman sits in a plastic surgeon’s office while he offers her faces. Speaking German, he suggests a few popular choices for a woman to model herself on, both celebrities under the Nazi regime. “I guess they’re both out of fashion now,” he quips. “I want to look like I used to,” she insists. But as he tells her, “It’s never quite the same.” This is The Screening Room. Welcome.
In ancient myth, the phoenix was a songbird which died in flame and was reborn. For people, it’s not so easy–even after her surgery, ex-cabaret singer Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) seems barely there, quiet and withdrawn in the apartment her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) secures for her. Eyes down, Nelly moves seldom and stiffly, as if still feeling the great pain and terror and sorrow of the concentration camp she survived. It’s only when she finds her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) again that she starts to come alive; but Lene tells Nelly that Johnny might have informed on her to the Nazis. With her new face, Johnny doesn’t recognize her–but there must be something there, because he proposes that Nelly pretend to be, well, herself, back from the dead to claim an inheritance. Nelly knows the truth but can’t speak it, not while the possibility of Johnny’s betrayal hangs over her. It’s this tension that drives the film’s powerful emotional impact, as each new scene further twists the knife.
Some critics have called Phoenix Hitchcockian, but that undersells the situation. It’s nothing less than a restaging of Vertigo‘s third act, now set in post-war Berlin. In both films, an elaborate criminal scheme establishes a situation where a woman is made to seem like one who is dead alive again; in both films, only the man does not know that both women are one and the same. In a way, Phoenix is even more elegant, as it eliminates the extraneous character from Hitchcock’s film. Instead of a hapless detective inadvertently trapped by a murderer, here the woman’s “killer” and the man symbolically reviving her are the same person. That’s no accident; the connection is crucial to the colossal guilt at the heart of the story.
In a way, living in one’s own country is a little like a marriage: you may not always agree, but you’re bound together… until one horrible day when you’re not. “First the grocer wouldn’t sell to us,” says Johnny, telling Nelly a story she already knows in front of their bombed-out home. “Then Mr. Schmidt-Ott opposite. Nelly was banned from singing. No friends came by anymore.” One note at a time, the music stopped; Germany fell out of love with the Jews. But just as Nelly can’t bring herself to leave Germany for a new life in Palestine, as her friend Lene exhorts her to, she can’t bring herself to leave her husband, either. In Vertigo, Judy reluctantly allows Scottie to turn her back into Madeleine, hoping she’ll be able to win his love and assuage his guilt; in Phoenix, Nelly doesn’t seem to know how to do either of those things. She simply wants to be close to him, to keep hoping that he still loves her, that she can find a way to prove to him who she is. In an extraordinary, devastating scene, she does; and the look on Johnny’s face is all she needs to know.
This is a slow and quiet drama, but deeply absorbing. Even when nothing is happening, you can’t look away. Such a film needs strong performances to anchor it, and Phoenix‘s are phenomenal. Zerhfeld takes the thankless role of the ignorant scoundrel and makes him empathetic. As Lene, Kunzendorf hides weakness in a brittle strength. The narrative counterpoint to Johnny, Lene is also trying to put Nelly back together again, but Kunzendorf indicates subtly that her chief motivation is that, if she fixes Nelly, only one of the two women will still be broken. And Hoss herself delivers a rich, star-making performance, electric and understated and moving all at the same time. You never know quite what she’s going to do, and she only gradually reveals her interior, always hiding, always evasive, until finally she bursts into flame. Likewise, the film’s cinematic techniques hide great depth beneath restraint–notice how the cinematography, set design and staging create scene after scene where characters face away from blown-out windows and bright street-lamps, how the film gradually opens up from dark to light, from inside to outside, as the story does falsehood to truth. Notice the saturated red light of the club where Nelly finds Johnny for the first time, and the way the crowded and colorful interior turns the club into a place of possibly dangerous passion. Or the moments when Nelly’s face is hidden, showing only her hair–first in its damaged state, and then later as she always desired it to be. And notice the way that old jazz standard, “Speak Low,” plays on the radio and then shows up as an instrumental score throughout, as though the melody won’t leave Nelly’s mind until she gets it out completely, by the root.
Although Phoenix swims in the waters of the films that came before it–shades of noir, of Hitchcock, of Fassbender–it belongs on our modern shores. Like many films last year, it strikes a strong feminist note, embracing and inverting old stories to find the woman’s perspective. Although we feel for Judy in Vertigo, she’s entirely a victim; but over the course of this film and in the length of a single, haunting song, Nelly brings herself back to life. It’s her film, and her unsettling emotional conundrum, as she tries to navigate this eerie limbo between war and peacetime, death and life, past and present. Earlier in the film, in a striking moment of anger, Lene argues that the Jews returned too soon after the war to the land of their would-be exterminators: “The gassing comes, and we forgive all counts of cowardice and treachery.” By taking the unfathomable horror of the Holocaust and connecting it to one “he done her wrong” relationship, Phoenix makes the enormous graspable, turns the historical and political utterly, brutally personal–and beautifully, sorrowfully fleeting. As the song goes: “We’re late, darling, we’re late / The curtain descends, everything ends / too soon, too soon.”