Melodrama, with its sentimental excess and sensationalist tendencies, has a decade-spanning legacy in film history as a dramatic framework endlessly applicable to its contemporary social landscape and invariably well received by its audiences. Flat characters turgid with pathos populate the melodrama, who typically engage with the crises, humiliations, and supreme redemptions involved in a romance threatened by external pressures. Dramatic irony and confusion of identity are common narrative tropes of the classical film melodrama, which motor emotionally inflated but ultimately harmless disputes that are resolved by a standardly satisfying conclusion. The candid expression of feelings and motivations of the characters is ultimately what makes the melodrama so palatable. Even amidst the most bombastic throes of romantic friction we are constantly made aware of the inner alignments of the characters and their inevitable trajectories back towards one another.
Because emotional transparency is the prevailing norm of the melodrama, creating a similar narrative formation that lets the inner dimensions of its character remain opaque upends the expectations and conventions of the genre entirely. Such is the case with Christian Petzold’s spellbinding anti-melodrama Phoenix (2014), whose narrative material is as challenging as its method of unveiling itself. Phoenix centers on a disfigured holocaust survivor, Nelly, who returns to Berlin after the war in search of her husband after having facial reconstruction surgery that only slightly alters her appearance. When she finds her husband Johannes, he does not recognize her, but he thinks she looks similar enough for her to pose as his presumably dead wife to claim her inheritance. He takes her in and instructs Nelly how to dress and behave as his wife had, which offers Nelly a chance to reclaim her old life under the pretense of a lie. The dramatic irony of whether or not she will reveal herself to Johannes is further complicated when she learns that he may have betrayed her to the Nazis, and the ensuing psychodrama explores the performativity of identity in the wake of trauma.
The disfigurement of Nelly is a literalization of how she has been altered by her experience in the holocaust: though her sense of self is approximate to what it was prior, she is immutably changed by the experience such that she cannot return to the life she had before. The figurative parallel continues as her reintroduction into her ‘old life’ can only be conducted as a performance, a series of memorized habits continually enacted. Is Nelly the survivor putting up the charade of her old self, or is she the woman whose identity was constructed by those who remembered her? The dilemma of identity being a performance both put on for others and put onto us by others is never resolved. Equally uncertain is the decision Nelly must face about her future: will she swallow the betrayal and exploitations of her husband to seamlessly re-enter her life as if her internment never happened? Or will she embrace her departure from her old life and in doing so take the dignified path towards total isolation? The quandaries of national identity and the extent of forgiveness in post-war Germany foment as much indeterminable strife as Nelly’s individual discordancy. Her civil life as a German is now at odds with her experience of persecution as a Jew, and trying to reconcile the two proves to be as excruciatingly irresolvable as her duplicitous reunion with Johannes.
Phoenix’s tale of a woman playing the part of a look-alike draws overt comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), though it is told from the perspective of the knowing woman rather than the unknowing man, turning the overwhelming moment of realization of Vertigo’s John Ferguson into an exquisitely treacherous sense of anticipation that spans the entire film. Thus a more apt comparison would be to two films of strikingly similar premises both released in 1966: Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another and John Frankenheimer’s Seconds. Face follows a man who dons a prosthetic mask after a disfiguring accident and allows the new visage to shape him into a new identity entirely, creating a Jekyll-and-Hyde-like duality that eliminates all sense of morality. Teshigahara’s film, like Phoenix, regards the sense of self to be subject to discontinuity, and probes how a traumatic, life-altering event creates a schism between the self that was before and the self that was after. In Face, the protagonist tests the faithfulness of his wife while under his second identity which provokes the central conflict of the film. The premise of Seconds is a corporation that brings the consciousness of a wealthy older man into an attractive young body, offering a second more liberated life. In this film the ‘old’ self is given a fake death, a more outright stance than Phoenix or Face, and again the interaction of the protagonist with his ‘widowed’ wife that generates the turmoil of identity which is the core of the film. Where a melodrama complicates an inevitable romance with farcical complications of estrangement and confusion, these films suggest that estrangement is the inevitability. What’s curious about all of these films is that the crisis of identity is always reckoned with when interacting with a significant other—that even with one’s deepest and most intimate relationship, the sense of sense felt internally and the identity constructed by the other can never be perfectly synchronous, and that ultimately another being will always remain fundamentally unknowable.