If you’re in the mood to read a movie this summer, you could do a lot worse than catching Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix,” now showing in Central Arkansas after its wide U.S. release in mid-August. In German with English subtitles, Petzold’s film is set in post-Holocaust Berlin, and is filmed in the noir style characteristic of the late-40s era that it recreates. You feel while watching it that maybe it should have been made in black and white.
“Phoenix” follows Auschwitz survivor Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a former cabaret singer, who is brought back to Berlin by her friend and protector, Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf), to have reconstructive surgery on her devastated face, which was ravaged by a gunshot just before the camp was liberated. Nelly is a shattered survivor, who learns from Lene (who has been vigilantly searching records of the death camps) that she is her family’s only survivor and that she has a substantial inheritance coming from Swiss bank accounts. Lene wants to move with Nelly to Palestine, to settle along the beach in Haifa, there to help build a Jewish homeland. Nelly wants only to find her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the love of whom, she feels, helped her survive the death camps. But Lene insists that it was in fact Johnny who turned Nelly in to the Nazis.
Undeterred, Nelly searches the nightclubs still scattered among the rubble of the city, and at one, named the Phoenix, she finds her pianist husband. But Johnny (now called Johannes) does not recognize her, the surgery having so changed her face. Still, he thinks she bears a resemblance to his wife, and hatches a plot to use the false Nelly to claim his dead wife’s inheritance. So begins a bizarre game of Pygmalion, in which Johnny tries to transform the traumatized post-Auschwitz Nelly into the real Nelly, as he knew her before the war.
The film keeps you guessing throughout: Is Lene justified in her suspicion of Johnny’s complicity in Nelly’s arrest? Can Nelly trust Johnny’s apparently sincere loving memories of his wife? If Lene is correct, will Nelly’s love of Johnny blind her to his betrayal? Does Lene have her own agenda that keeps her from understanding Nelly’s need to find and assess her husband? And at the bottom of it all, as my wife put it, do you really have a self if the one who loves you does not recognize you?
The film is suspenseful, and it builds to a stunning climax that will make you want to talk about it for some time after you see it—my wife and I smiled as we left the theater listening to the people around us burst out with their opinions of what had happened—then having left the crowd we burst out with our own. As my wife, a fiction writer herself, pointed out, the film has the quality of a finely wrought short story—self-contained, possessing a tight unity of action, with an ending that is suspenseful, surprising, yet inevitable.
Sure, the film is melodramatic in a way that seems out of step with contemporary films, though is completely appropriate for films of the late 1940s. And yes, there are parts of the plot that seem to stretch the limits of our willing suspension of disbelief. How could you not recognize your own wife, even if you had been convinced of her death? Why would a woman want to reunite with the person who in all likelihood had betrayed her to what he thought was certain death? But if you accept these things, thy do not detract from the story. And (despite my wife’s description of the story as self-contained), it is possible that we are not necessarily meant to take the story literally—or at least, not only literally.
Petzold’s films tend to be about Germany itself as much as they are about the individuals portrayed in their plots. His previous film, the acclaimed “Barbara” (2012), also starring Nina Hoss, was set in East Germany in the 1980s, and explored the limits of freedom under an oppressive government. This story, very loosely adapted by Petzold and Harun Farocki from a French novel Le Retour des cendres (Return from the Ashes) by Hubert Monteilhet (previously adapted as a 1965 British film starring Maximillian Schell), is very deliberately set in Berlin, and Petzold purposefully makes the characters German rather than French. It is no accident that Nelly tells Lene that she was not Jewish, or that when the surgeon asks her why in 1938 she, a Jew, would actually return to Germany from London, she has no answer. There is a kind of allegory going on here, in which Nelly represents those non-observant Jews who had so assimilated into German culture that they were shocked with disbelief when their own friends and neighbors, their own beloved countrymen, turned on them and gave them up to the Nazis. Johnny, who represents those very Germans (a point underscored by his insistence that she now call him “Johannes”), refuses to face his own guilt, wants to think of his former partner, the Jew, as dead and gone, and (like Nelly herself) wants to pretend things can go back to normal. Is he Petzold’s embodiment of post-war Germany? And Nelly, who desires to return to the past, saying she no longer has an identity, with Lene, who cannot live in the present, feels a greater bond with the dead, and now hates the land she grew up in, do they represent two Jewish reactions to the end of the war?
The film, released in Germany last year, has already received a number of international awards, including accolades for Kunzendorf as Lene as “Best Supporting Actress” from the German Film Awards. Hoss is mesmerizing as Nelly, dragging the ruined shell of her body around the ruined shell of Berlin, and gradually transforming into her earlier self, but with a new albeit wavering inner strength. Zehrfeld is excellent as well, a con-man but one who may well have loved his wife, not a complete villain but someone who, when push comes to shove, cannot be relied upon. He can subtly betray a hundred emotions at once with the expression on his face, as he does at the film’s conclusion.
The mood of the film—reminiscent, at times, of Orson Welles’ “The Third Man” with its world-weary and despondent atmosphere—is captured by the 1943 Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash song “Speak Low,” a Billie Holiday song sung by Nelly during the film. The lyrics
Time is so old and love so brief
Love is pure gold and time a thief
We’re late, darling, we’re late
The curtain descends, ev’rything ends
too soon, too soon
encapsulate the fate of Nelly’s love: The curtain has come down. Time has stolen her brief love. The rising Phoenix must be born anew and leave the past behind. Here’s a film that deserves four Shakespeares. Catch it if you can.