“Phoenix” makes a number of compelling statements, but there’s one that’s especially relevant to current movie culture: stop obsessing over plot holes. Its narrative is pretty candidly implausible, but it handles its characters and themes with a subtlety that ultimately makes the unlikelihood of its plot irrelevant. Story beats that feel exaggerated or cartoonish are balanced with performances of quiet, profound emotional weight. The most devastating moments in the film contain little or no dialogue – director Christian Petzold trusts his audience to understand the severity of the situations facing his characters.
“Phoenix” occurs in Germany, post-World War II, and features a woman and Holocaust survivor (Nina Hoss) recovering from reconstructive facial surgery who hopes to reunite with her husband (Ronald Zehrfeld) after their separation during the war. Though she finds him, he does not recognize her. Instead, he continues to believe his wife is dead, but thinks this new woman he’s met bears enough resemblance to his wife that he can use her to claim his wife’s inheritance.
The film embraces the dubiousness of this setup, using it to its advantage as it proceeds. Though the plotting can feel outlandish, the characters are striking in their realism. This is the movie’s hinge. It uses an over-the-top premise to depict deeply human relationships. The emotional stakes are laid bare and seem simple compared to the narrative devices used, but that simplicity never detracts from their impact. Instead, this structural contrast makes them more vivid.
This seems like a very difficult task to accomplish, and it shouldn’t work as well as it does. Petzold doesn’t sentimentalize. He allows the camera to take over responsibility rather than rely on expository dialogue or over-explanations. It’s a stunning film, with gorgeous, expressive lighting that reveals as much about its characters as they ever do with their words. And the performances from its leads, Hoss in particular, are exceptional.
“Phoenix” isn’t heavy-handed, either, which allows it to operate on a number of allegorical levels. Or none at all. It feels sincerely engaged in a discussion about national identity and recognition of guilt after intentional and unimaginable horror, but it always remains in the register of the interpersonal. The analysis and discussion can come after – and it values those conversations – but it grounds itself in the people it portrays.
So many current movies, and the discussions around those movies, focus on whether or not the tiny pieces of their narratives work just right. I’m thinking of titles like “Interstellar,” which spend huge chunks of time explaining plot details to the viewer (”Interstellar” actually includes diagrams). These details ultimately don’t matter much, and viewers will dissect them and debate their plausibility, anyway. At a certain point, it becomes futile.
This is what “Phoenix” does right. It gets the plot in motion and then makes sure its characters are the reasons you’re still sitting in the theater. Where other movies fumble in their attempts to justify the story you’re witnessing, “Phoenix” justifies it with emotional momentum. Are there plot holes? Sure. Will you care? Probably not. There’s a good chance the final scene of this film will leave you literally breathless. I’ll take that trade-off.