Most of the discussion around Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, which stars his frequent muse Nina Hoss as Nelly, a Holocaust survivor, is around its surprising finale. Julian Barnes’s 2011 Nobel Prize winning novel The Sense of an Ending takes its title from Studies In the Theories of Fiction by Frank Kermode, which claims to “make sense of the way we try to make sense of our lives”.
This is a pretty profound statement, and through the film, the claim almost seems to work backwards: The Sense of the Ending of Phoenix is almost like the starting point of the film, (it would be fascinating to view the film in reverse, or perhaps forwards and reverse simultaneously, like is suggested for The Shining). Like the Kubrick film, Phoenix‘s big reveal, (though we know it) makes the viewer look backwards and forwards simultaneously. The patient movie watcher can sift through the rubble, and figure out where in the story of Esther, (as she renames herself), can Nelly return to her husband Johnny as her sort-of doppelgänger and try to figure out his intentions when dealing with herself.
Nelly is a ghost come back to life, which is but a single way in which she becomes the Phoenix of the nightclub. Its literal title is the nightclub in which her husband works, having not played the piano since before she disappeared, (music plays an essential role in helping to unearth the mysterious Nelly).
Phoenix seems to be about much more than Nelly’s reveal. It is the rebirth, the rebuilding of Germany, a Germany plagued with guilt and unease after the Holocaust, and about Petzold’s desire to show the reader as he shows the audience of the film, agape, confrontational and forced to reconcile the need to move forward and continue to glance backwards. This Phoenix can only rise by forcing the viewer, both the filmic viewer and those in the movie audience, to stall, to halt, to stay low, to look askew, to put their lives on hold. Hoss-ta la vista, baby.