In this film essay journey, I planned to watch and write about a movie a week. However, after watching “Eyes Without a Face” by Georges Franju last week, I found myself without anything to say. Every time I tried to write, nothing really stood out as important for me to write about with that film. This week, having no idea there were any similar themes between the two films, I watched “Phoenix” by Christian Petzold. I don’t know whether to call it intuition, serendipity, or just dumb luck, but I am really glad that I didn’t write about “Eyes” last week, because the main theme of that film is addressed in “Phoenix” as well, but in a much deeper, more complex, and interesting way. The simplest way to say it is that both of these movies are about identity, but of course our identity is tied into so many other things, both superficial, like beauty, and incredibly deep, like personal values. They both understand identity is not just what an individual thinks about themselves or how they see themselves, but also about what other people think about you and how they see you, and how the individual takes in those perceptions. The biggest difference between the two, and the real failing of “Eyes Without a Face” for me, is that while “Phoenix” focuses more heavily on the philosophical questions about identity and the feedback loop of how others views affect your own, “Eyes” unfortunately focuses more on the superficial aspect of beauty and its implications on self-worth and worth to society. While I find that topic incredibly valuable to explore, I found the way it was explored in “Eyes” not that impressive compared to the many other films in which you can see it examined. For instance, I felt that “Phoenix” explored it better, and yet it was a much smaller part of that film’s focus and attention. With that out of the way, I myself will focus most of my attention now on “Phoenix” and it’s strange beauty.
As we begin, Nelly is returning home to Berlin from the concentration camps after World War II with heavy bandages hiding her disfigured face. Immediately we learn that what she worries about most is that if no one can recognize her face, what happens to her identity, and who does she become? Since Nelly is most concerned with her physical facial appearance, I will start there with this question of beauty and what reflects back to us from society. During a consultation with her doctor, he asks if she wants her old face reconstructed, or new face. Of course Nelly wants to be herself again, but the doctor warns her that it might never match her memory and cause her pain and as part of the appeal of a new face which he offers is the beauty of the different faces she could choose and how in fashion they are. His goal is not about identity at all, he only sees value in aesthetic beauty so that is what he recommends to her. Later, when Nelly is driving with her family member after her new face is revealed, she expresses concern over whether she will ever look like herself again, and they reassure her that she looks beautiful. She also shows that she places the most value on aesthetic beauty by believing that is the only thing Nelly is concerned about. However, for Nelly, is it about matching the old image of her, the only one the world knows, because anything less than that leaves her unknown to the world, and thus to herself. It is so heartbreaking to see these people who supposedly care about her reduce Nelly to her beauty and send her the message, as we always have to women, that it is her only value because it is the number one way they identify her.
After Nelly has returned home and started healing, she starts to seek out her husband Johnny to find out if he still alive. The problem is that with so little left to hold onto about her old life now that her sense of safety and freedom has been thoroughly shattered, she begins to define her identity entirely by her relationship with Johnny and beings to fixate on him. If Johnny can recognize her, then she will be herself again. But he doesn’t. And it wounds her deeply. But she cannot let go. So she follows him. And he notices her following him. He says she looks a bit like his dead wife and asks her to pretend to be herself so they can collect her inheritance and split it. This is where things get really interesting as she heads into a hall of mirrors trying to find out which image of her is the real her. Johnny tells her what to wear and how to be and who to be, and she follows because Johnny is now the judge of how herself she is. So now she is reconstructing her identity not on her own perception of it but on how Johnny sees her. Johnny is defining Nelly. This is such a brilliant way to represent the way that, for much of history, women were defined by the men they were with, and often times, they defined themselves that way as well because it was easier than dealing with the constant cognitive dissonance between who they are and who society demands they be while knowing that they don’t have the power to change it. Nelly is so much more than how Johnny sees her, but her desperation to cling on to her old self forces her to do whatever is necessary to be the Nelly that Johnny remembers.
This film stays very narrowly focused on Nelly’s personal search for an identity, so while the movie is set in Berlin just after the war, all of that heaviness serves mostly as a backdrop for her story. However, it is obvious these questions about identity that Nelly is exploring are impacted by and reflected in the same questions about Germany’s identity after the war. Nelly can never again be the Nelly from before the war because she can never again feel quite as safe or quite as free in the same way Germany can never again be the Germany from before Hitler because it can never forget it committed genocide. And Germany is a great example for Nelly because rather than try to pretend it could go back to being the old Germany, it made a conscious effort to continually remind itself and the world that an atrocity did happen, and thus Germany needed to be different so it would not happen again. Nelly also needs to accept the reality of what happened and understand she is different, and to find her identity now she has to let go of the old one. And this is something we all struggle with I think, the idea that identity is fixed, when in fact it can be very fluid. We all love to have strong values and beliefs and personality traits because we feel like those things give us a strong identity. The struggle is when we hold onto some of those things even in the face of a new reality that is screaming at us that it is time to let go of an outdated part of ourselves that no longer serves us and evolve with the world around us.
I could go on forever about these themes, and there is much more intrigue to the story that I have not touched on, but I’ll wrap up with some brief thoughts about the visuals, performances, and direction in the film. The entire film I felt so comfortable being in the hands of a director so clearly in control of every aspect of the film that it was hard to pick everything he was doing, but I could feel it. The visuals are not flashy, but so haunting, often due to their simplicity and uncluttered nature. The above image, for instance, of the fragmented mirror in rubble showing two reflections of Nelly is so simple and clear in its implication, yet packs so much more than meets the eyes inside of it. The movie is loaded with less overt but equally powerful imagery throughout the film. Nina Hoss as Nelly gives an almost numbing performance, in that it’s almost too much to take in the totality of what she is going through, yet we can see it in every moment through her physical performance, so you almost become numb watching her to avoid the pain of her reality, just as her character is avoiding it. The supporting performances were good, but this film lives and dies on Nina’s performance and she carries every bit of this movie, its philosophical exploration, and its emotional devastation. If you, like me, sometimes hesitate to watch movies about really heavy topics like the Holocaust and World War II, I urge you not to avoid this movie because it is beautiful, meaningful, and only brings in the heaviness of the circumstances surrounding Nelly in service of Nelly’s personal story, which is really a self-love story.