German Lieder music has taken on a broader meaning through common usage than its strict text book definition. Many now think of it as anything Lotte Lenya might have performed, including jazz standards, rather than just Romantic-style classical music for voice and Spartan piano accompaniment. Nelly Lenz was definitely part of that tradition when she was a popular chanteuse on the Weimar scene. That alone would have caused her plenty of trouble with the National Socialists, but Lenz is also Jewish. After months of hiding, Lenz was discovered and condemned to a concentration camp, perhaps due to her beloved husband’s betrayal. Having somehow survived, Lenz will seek the truth, no matter how painful it will be, in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York, at the IFC Center.
Frankly, it is something a miracle Lenz is still alive. During the war’s waning days, a point-bullet bullet intended to execute her only tore up her face. Miraculously, Lene Winter, an old Weimar friend working for the Jewish Hall of Records finds the wretch-like Lenz and nurses her back to life. At an exclusive plastic surgery clinic, Lenz is given the choice of any face she wishes, but insists on keeping her formerly famous features. Obviously, the surgery is a rousing success, but due to the extensive damage, she now bears only a vague shadow of her old self.
Despite Winter’s suspicions, Lenz seeks out her former husband and accompanist, Johannes “Johnny” Lenz, currently working as the janitor of the Phoenix jazz club. Having no idea of her true identity, but struck by her superficial resemblance to his presumed late wife, the domineering Johnny starts grooming Lenz to impersonate herself, so he can claim her inheritance. Initially, Lenz plays along hoping to discover whether or not he was the one who tipped off the Gestapo. Yet, against her better judgement and Winter’s protests, Lenz finds herself falling for her husband all over again.
There is no need to mince words here—Phoenix is an absolutely terrific film. Nina Hoss is superb as usual, following up her incomparable work in Petzold’s Barbara with another Oscar worthy performance. She owns the film, but the brutal honesty of Nina Kunzendorf’s work as Winter leaves an indelible impression as well. Again, Petzold shows an exquisitely sensitive touch, while maintaining a taut noir tension. Frankly, genre labels seem inappropriate for Phoenix given its heavy ethical and historical themes, yet it still succeeds quite smashingly on that level.
The way Petzold uses music throughout Phoenix is also nothing less than extraordinary. Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low” might be the sort of torch song you never really gave much thought to, but Stefan Wills’ builds an entire soundtrack around it, prominently featuring pizzicato bass. It is an elegantly and eloquently wistful motif that perfectly underscores the dramatic developments, yet it cannot fully prepare us for the power of Hoss’s rendition.
Be warned, Hoss will leave you devastated in the final scene. Lesser films would have tacked on some superfluous talking just to make sure we got its significance, but Petzold recognizes when there is nothing left to say. Brilliant. Guaranteed to be one of the best films of the year, Phoenix is very highly recommended when it opens this Friday (7/24) in New York, at the IFC Center downtown and the Lincoln Plaza uptown.