“Phoenix,” the spellbinding new film from the German director Christian Petzold, hinges on the sort of conceit that some have dismissed as ruinously implausible, while others have concluded that its implausibility is more or less the point. In a movie of exacting subtlety, it sometimes takes the baldest of contrivances to cut straight to the heart of the matter. World War II has just ended, and Nelly Lenz, a Jewish singer and an Auschwitz survivor, is about to undergo reconstructive surgery after a disfiguring gunshot wound. When she is later reunited with Johnny, the faithless husband who betrayed her to the Nazis to save his own skin, he fails to recognize who she is. Still, he discerns enough of a resemblance to propose a lowly scheme: Nelly — or Esther, as she calls herself — will pass herself off as his presumed-dead wife so they can collect her inheritance.
How could Johnny not realize that Esther is in fact his wife? And how could their deception possibly succeed for as long as it does? As Petzold declared in a 2014 interview with Cinema Scope’s Adam Nayman: “People who ask these questions don’t like movies.” And so in “Phoenix,” an unabashedly melodramatic noir-thriller plot, replete with eerie echoes of “Vertigo” (1958) and “Eyes Without a Face” (1960), provides the narrative foundation for an altogether deeper and more unsettling inquiry. Arising, as its title suggests, from the barely cooled embers of a bombed-out Berlin, Petzold’s dreamlike movie evokes a physical and psychological wasteland where the past has become not just irretrievable, but virtually unrecognizable.
The difference between seeing and understanding — between simply looking at something and actually grasping the truth of what it means or represents — is a theme as old as Sophocles. It also happens to be central to two of the very finest films that have emerged so far this year: not only “Phoenix,” a surprise arthouse hit now in its second week of Stateside release, but also “The Look of Silence,” Joshua Oppenheimer’s powerful new reckoning with the anti-communist purges that swept across Indonesia during the 1960s. One is a fiction set in the immediate aftermath of a widely documented catastrophe; the other is a documentary set decades after a catastrophe that has been obscured by numerous self-justifying fictions. Both films seek to illuminate the nature of postwar guilt by staging a series of direct confrontations between an aggressor and a victim, between the betrayer and the betrayed, and to raise the question of whether reconciliation is possible. But in both films, the guilty party continues to evade responsibility by refusing to acknowledge any wrongdoing — a condition that manifests itself as a willful sort of blindness.
We experience some of that blindness ourselves in “Phoenix.” Crucially, we have little idea of what Nelly looked like before her injury, apart from a faded photograph and a brief flashback (in which she is filmed either from behind or in darkness). The effect of this is wondrously disorienting: Nelly/Esther gazes into the mirror and sees a stranger peering back at her, albeit a stranger who happens to possess the darkly ravishing features of Nina Hoss. There’s a weird, bittersweet irony to the notion that one of the most singular and expressive faces in modern cinema might strike its owner as something alien and undesirable. And it dovetails perfectly with the five previous films that Petzold and Hoss have made together, adding up to a body of work that — in its rigorous and exhaustive examination of Germany’s postwar consciousness — represents one of the most impressive and sustained collaborations in recent movies.
In their best films, Hoss doesn’t seem to be acting so much as directing right alongside Petzold; she becomes a sort of conduit, channeling his very intentions into her every word, expression and gesture. In “Yella” (2007), Hoss’ countenance reflected back at us the icy ruthlessness of 21st-century global capitalism, and in the 1980-set “Barbara” (2007), it became a brave, somber indictment of East German totalitarianism. In “Phoenix,” effectively the conclusion of a historical trilogy played in reverse, the actress once more presents her face — bandaged and bruised, but no less beautiful — as a canvas of pain and political meaning.
When Nelly asks her doctor to restore her face to its original appearance, she is effectively pleading for a return to a world that can never be reclaimed. The doctor, assuring her that he can give her any new face she wants, seems to embody the false optimism of those who believe the horrors of the past can be simply erased from memory. Johnny is the most deluded of all: Staring repeatedly into the visage of a woman he once claimed to love, he doesn’t recognize Nelly, we suspect, because it’s far easier for him if he doesn’t. To really see her would force him to take a good, hard look at himself.
Repeatedly in “Phoenix,” Nelly gives Johnny a chance to explain himself, to atone for his sins or at least acknowledge them. Again and again, his blindness persists, even when he notices that Esther and Nelly have the same slanted, elegant penmanship — or, in the movie’s most “Vertigo”-like moment, when he beholds the woman he sought to mold Esther into and notices only flaws and discrepancies. The gathering tension allows “Phoenix” to build to one of the greatest movie endings in recent memory (those who haven’t seen it should read no further), achieving a clarity of vision that is at once sublime and shattering. The evidence of his eyes may still deceive him, but Johnny, a pianist, still has two good ears, and it’s all too fitting that what jerks him back to horrifying reality is not a face, but a song.
The theme of moral myopia is even more pointed in “The Look of Silence,” which opens with the image of a man’s eyes framed by enormous, metal-ringed specs as he receives a prescription test for glasses. The man is Inong, a former leader of one of the death squads that spread revolutionary terror and violence throughout Indonesia in the mid-1960s. The optician administering the test is Adi, whose older brother, Ramli, who was one of the hundreds of thousands who were rounded up, labeled “communists” and senselessly murdered by men like Inong. As metaphors go, this one is unusually blunt and pointed, and if “The Look of Silence” were a work of fiction (if only), it might have seemed too forced by half: As Adi engages the men who were directly or indirectly responsible for Ramli’s death, he becomes determined in every sense to correct their vision.
If the subject matter sounds familiar, it’s because the film is a companion piece to the Oscar-nominated 2013 documentary “The Act of Killing,” which generated acclaim and controversy for allowing the perpetrators of the massacre to recount the specifics of their crimes in graphic, painstakingly detailed re-creations. The cruel moral of that stomach-churning exercise was that “history is written by the winners,” and it’s one that Oppenheimer’s latest film (which, like “Killing,” was co-directed by an anonymous filmmaker) neither denies nor refutes. But even as it reminds us that the killers remain very much in power, “The Look of Silence” represents a concerted attempt to rewrite history from the standpoint of truth — to turn away from the killers’ self-glorifying antics and give full, anguished voice to the victims and their still-stricken loved ones.
These murderers never have been and perhaps never will be called to public account, but at the very least, they are forced to answer to Adi, who approaches each subject with the patience of a saint and the persistent, unyielding authority of a master interrogator. Rarely have we seen truth spoken to power so gently, or so effectively. “The past is past,” more than one interviewee offers by way of defense, but Adi and the filmmakers continually refute that lie by drawing our attention to the ways in which the events of more than four decades ago continually seep into the present. We sense it in the atmosphere of religious superstition and paranoia that persists in the region; in the anti-communist propaganda still being spread in local elementary-school classes; in the killers’ insistence that they were merely following orders and serving the state; and, most disturbingly, in their bizarre conviction that they had to drink their victims’ blood in order to keep from going insane.
If “Phoenix” ends seemingly beyond the reach of human forgiveness, “The Look of Silence,” bleak as it is, does not entirely rule out the possibility of redemption. Adi never comes right out and asks his brother’s killers to repent or apologize, but every confrontation carries with it an implicit invitation to do just that, and it’s galvanizing to watch how the men react to his gentle probing: Some of them squirm in their seats, while others turn angrily defensive or wave away Adi’s charges with infuriating callousness. (Even more heartrending are the reactions of their family members, falling somewhere between shame, protest and feigned ignorance; for better or worse, their anguish is an undeniable affirmation of the killers’ humanity.) The terrible intimacy of these exchanges couldn’t help but send my mind across the Pacific, to the recent shootings in Charleston, S.C. — specifically, to those family members who found it within themselves to speak words of forgiveness to the alleged shooter Dylann Roof upon his capture. Those of us who listened found ourselves agape at the human capacity for grace so soon after a tragedy, especially in the face of a killer’s monstrous indifference.
Can the guilty be forgiven when they refuse to so much as acknowledge their crimes, let alone atone for them? And how much time must pass before the idea of forgiveness can even enter the picture? These are questions to which Oppenheimer’s film supplies no easy answer, though it completely obliterates the notion that time necessarily heals all wounds: These ones, after all, continue to fester unhealed more than four decades after they were inflicted. True to its title, this deeply sobering film suggests that the sheer enormity of the crimes that were committed should naturally compel us — guilty, innocent and formerly ignorant alike — into silence. Some of the most significant images are simple closeups of Adi as he watches video footage of the killers, who boast about their barbarism in general and Ramli’s murder in particular. In a film that turns the very act of viewing — and listening — into a moral imperative, Adi’s handsome face takes on a grave, haunting eloquence. Nothing needs to be said, or indeed can be said. For now, perhaps, it’s enough that he and the audience have their eyes wide open.