Some of the best love songs are those whose lyrics perch precariously between “I adore you, let’s be happy forever” and “I’m miserable without you, where have you gone?” Together, the melody and words of Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s 1943 ballad “Speak Low” take the shape of a vaporous question: “We’re late, darling we’re late/The curtain descends, everything ends too soon, too soon.” Too late for what, exactly? Something has just happened, and something else is about to happen — the song is its own enigmatic backstory. Its opening line, an altered quote from Much Ado About Nothing — “Speak low when you speak, love” — is both an invitation and a warning: Don’t let the gods hear us, they’ll dash our plans to bits — but please, whatever you do, don’t stop pouring words in my ear.
We hear “Speak Low” several times in Phoenix, the rapturous noir thriller from German director Christian Petzold, and the song is much more than just an accessory to the plot. Ardent, urgent, and smoldering, Phoenix seems to have sprung directly from the songwriters’ coded poetry. The script is by Petzold and Harun Farocki, adapted from French crime writer Hubert Monteilhet’s 1963 novel Return From the Ashes (also the source material for a 1965 film starring Maximilian Schell and Samantha Eggar). It’s also, incidentally, a riff on Vertigo: The extraordinary German actress Nina Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, a woman who has survived Auschwitz but whose face has been disfigured. With the help of a loyal friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), Nelly is brought to Berlin so her face can be reconstructed by a plastic surgeon, though “reimagined” would be a better word. Nelly pleads with the surgeon to make her look as she did before. He does his best, though the results fall far short of her expectations.
With her new face, and feeling like a stranger to everyone, including herself, Nelly drifts through half-demolished postwar Berlin, looking for her lost husband, Johnny — in their former lives, she was a singer, he a piano player. The horrors she suffered in the camps seem to have burned away everything in her but her love for him, and she’s overjoyed when she finds him. But Johnny — played by Ronald Zehrfeld, whose inherently trustworthy eyes make him a heartbreaker in this role — doesn’t recognize her, though he is struck by her resemblance to the wife he has presumed dead. Nelly, incidentally, is the heir to a sizable estate; when Johnny searches her hazily familiar face, he sees only Deutschmarks. He asks her to impersonate his “late” wife — in other words, herself — so he can procure the money. He will then give her half.
Talk about a metaphor for women who give too much. But Phoenix doesn’t need to trade in metaphors to have meaning: Petzold is content to explore the possibilities of traditional melodrama, and he turns up vast emotional riches. The director’s last film was the superb 2012 Barbara, also starring Hoss and Zehrfeld, another romance with a mystery built in; Phoenix is an even finer piece of work, so beautifully made that it comes close to perfect.
Watching Phoenix — the title refers to the American-run nightclub where Nelly finally locates Johnny, its lit-up sign a beckoning siren song — you may think you know what’s going to happen from one minute to the next. You’ll be wrong. That’s largely because Hoss’s face itself is a continually unfolding mystery, and to see her expressions shift is like catching the quiet gradation of the phases of the moon. There are few actresses working, in any country, who are as beguiling. (She also does her own singing in Phoenix, and it’s haunting.) In an early scene Nelly catches sight of her new face in a shard of mirror — not just any mirror, but a broken relic from the site of her former home, now reduced to rubble. We’ve already become used to this face, to the point of falling in love with it. But to Nelly, it’s uncharted territory. Hoss communicates the internal strangeness of this moment, and its horror. She can’t stand what she sees — a mouth that’s ill equipped for smiling, a nose that must look as if it were borrowed from a stranger — but she’ll have to live with it. That millisecond of reckoning is both thrilling and excruciating to watch.
Later, as she gazes at Johnny’s face, Nelly does smile, and the man who can’t respond to such lunar radiance is truly a deadened soul. That’s Johnny: Time and again, he comes close to picking up on the truth — it’s a measure of the subtlety of Zehrfeld’s performance that he conveys these glimmers of recognition with nothing more than a faint shift in his glance. Johnny sees only what he wants to see, and he’s a mystery Nelly must solve for herself. She puts every piece together in Phoenix‘s jaw-dropping final scene.
Until then, “Speak Low” has figured nominally in the story: At one point Nelly listens to a recording of it with Lene, also a singer, who praises it almost in the same breath as she speaks of her eagerness to leave Germany — with Nelly in tow — for Palestine. “I can’t stand German songs anymore,” she says, making a wry, unwitting joke. She seems to have forgotten that Weill is as German as they come.
Still, she’s not totally wrong. Weill wrote “Speak Low” in the States, where he’d made his home after leaving Germany, for obvious reasons, in 1933. In that sense, it’s a song without a country; maybe that wisp of uncertainty is what makes its melody so beautiful. In the shivery, delicately calibrated finale of Phoenix, we finally hear Nelly sing. It’s fitting that her choice should be this song without a country, one whose lyrics rush to keep pace with the passage of time. If you could imagine the perfect narrative for the mysteries of “Speak Low,” it would be Phoenix. Darling, we’re late — yet all of life depends on our eagerness to catch up.
Directed by Christian Petzold. Written by Christian Petzold and Harun Farocki. Starring Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, and Nina Kunzendorf.
Directed by Christian Petzold
Opens July 24, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center