Phoenix: DMFS Best of 2015
Des Moines Film Society asked some of our favorite local writers and film fanatics to pick their favorite film of 2015. You can read them all at DMFS: Best of 2015.
“I no longer exist,” Nelly, a Jewish nightclub singer shot in the head and left for dead in a Nazi concentration camp, says after seeing herself in a broken mirror amongst the rubble of her former home.
The gunshot wound left her disfigured, and despite begging a plastic surgeon for her old face back, she does not recognize herself once the bandages come off. In her own mind, Nelly — played by Nina Hoss, the German director Petzold’s longtime muse — is a ghost. She doesn’t want the fresh start a new face or the promise of a new Israel offers. She wants her old self and her old life back.
So Nelly tracks down her husband Johnny, who may or may not have betrayed her to the Nazis to save himself. He fails to recognize her. Instead, he brings this woman with a passing resemblance to his dead wife to his basement apartment, and convinces her to take part in an outlandish scheme: He will make her over, and she will pose as Nelly to steal her inheritance.
“Phoenix” is a lean 98 minutes, each of them dripping with melodrama and classic noir, twist after twist spinning a new web of paranoia and tragedy. The mistaken identity plot draws obvious comparisons to “Vertigo,” and like that Hitchcock classic “Phoenix” asks a lot of profound questions — of identity, guilt, forgiveness.
This is a film so masterful in its pacing that the tension and suspense are almost too much to bear. We the viewers suffer with Nelly, aching to see a sign of recognition in Johnny’s glances — something, anything to spark the inevitable moment we know must come as she slips deeper into her old self under his tutelage. Then comes that ending — as close to perfect a conclusion to a film as I can ever recall.
Phoenix is the name of the nightclub in postwar Berlin where Johnny clears tables. Nelly finds him there early in the film, kicking off the plot’s risky gambit. The Phoenix is also a mythical creature, a bird thought dead only to be reborn by rising from the ashes of its former self.
At the heart of this wonderful film is a question of whether or not Nelly — and for that matter, a post-war Germany with the wounds of the Holocaust still open and raw — will find the power to rise from the fires and fly away, renewed, stronger than before.
The rest of my 2015 Top 10 list:
2 Clouds of Sils Maria – A delicate, cynical study of two women — an aging actress and her young personal assistant — and the choices each faces in the name of self-preservation.
3 Ex Machina – A modern sci-fi masterpiece that starts as an engaging thriller and evolves into something far more visceral, terrifying and satisfying.
4 Carol – Truly impeccable in all its technical aspects. A love story that manages to feel both timely and timeless.
5 Queen of Earth – Ninety strange minutes of psycho-drama pastiche dominated by a brilliant and suffocating Elisabeth Moss performance.
6 The Assassin – Taiwanese martial arts film that is remarkably slow, with a mostly puzzling narrative. But so beautiful in its every scene, every shot, every last blade of grass. Mesmerizing.
7 Mistress America – I would watch Greta Gerwig fold laundry for 105 minutes. Thankfully this sharp screwball(ish) comedy about youth and the risks and failures of becoming an adult, is a far greater artistic achievement.
8 The Big Short – A rollicking heist-like blast of a film — amazing, considering this is about collateral debt obligations and subprime mortgages —that reminds us all just how rigged the system really is.
9 The Revenant – Agonizing. Powerful. Violent. Exhausting. Operatic. Leo eats raw bison liver and sleeps inside a horse. Profound. Majestic.
10 45 Years – News from afar pushes a comfortable married couple, about to celebrate the titular anniversary, into crisis and fragile self-examination. Charlotte Rampling deserves an Oscar for her silent expressions alone.
Tim Paluch is a writer and former editor at The Des Moines Register. You can follow him on Twitter.