Film Review: Phoenix

'Phoenix' is the story of an Auschwitz survivor’s struggle to regain her identity, yet German filmmaker Christian Petzold’s noir-style movie is also a profound commentary on the lasting effects of the Nazi era on the German people.
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Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, about a Jewish performer who survives Auschwitz, is beautifully photographed on 35mm, its saturated colors one of the many ways the German-writer director’s visual style mirrors the movie’s theatrical screenplay. It stars Nina Hoss, who portrayed the title character in Petzold’s Barbara (2013), the story of an East Berlin physician sent to the provinces and stalked by the Stasi for unexplained misdeeds. Phoenix is set in an earlier historical period, immediately after the liberation of Auschwitz, in the winter of 1945. Like several of Petzold’s movies, including Barbara, its protagonist is both in transit and in transition.

While Barbara is about the inner struggle to maintain one’s humanity in an oppressive, communist state, Phoenix is the prequel, the history of how Germany lost that battle. Petzold’s characters are just emerging from the “fog of war,” shifting from the instinctual survival techniques that have stripped them of their humanity to the realization that, as survivors, they must find it again. The movie opens in the dark interior of a car and on the illuminated face of Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), who we later learn worked throughout the war to rescue Jews from the camps. Beside her is Nelly (Hoss), whose face is wrapped in bloody bandages. There is a tense moment at a military checkpoint, but then the women cross into Berlin.

Nelly is brought to a hospital to grapple with the first, seemingly superficial phase of reconstructing her identity, that of repairing her face. The more difficult process of reclaiming her mind and spirit occupies the remainder of the movie. A plastic surgeon offers Nelly a “new identity,” a different visage, but she refuses it, insisting that the doctor reconstruct her face.The decision is a conscious act of defiance, as the other options would erase who she was, and who she is now, a living reminder of Germany’s failures, although Petzold’s restraint in this scene—actually, restraint is the film’s watchword—is so pronounced that Nelly’s actions can be understood in many ways, including the reading that her resolution is instinctual, the result of her confused mental state.

After Nelly’s release from the hospital, she and Lene take an apartment—Nelly’s Berlin home has been bombed—and Lene makes plans for their move to Palestine. (Jews had begun immigrating there well before the outbreak of World War II.) While Lene appears the stronger of the two, she nevertheless struggles to reconstruct an identity that has become, as she says, tied to the dead, to those she failed to save, rather than to the living. In contrast, Nelly is determined to regain the life she led before the war. For one riveting moment, she gets her wish as she and Lene sit down for a meal to the accompaniment of a Kurt Weill tune. The music recalls more carefree times, and for Lene a period in her life when she and Nelly were often together. In fact, Kunzendorf’s nuanced performance hints at unfulfilled desire.

This exquisitely choreographed scene exposes the tension that lies at the core of the film, and that arises from Nelly’s incipient transformation. Her brashness may easily lead her to madness, to a life lived entirely in the past, or to a reconstructed identity that will allow her to go on despite her horrific experiences. Tension is also illustrated by the position of the two friends in tableau, on opposite sides of a large table. In a reverse shot, it is clear that Nelly is finding herself, but she is not looking at Lene. In reality, and metaphorically, the women’s gazes lead in opposite directions, Lene’s to Palestine and to the future, and Nelly’s to the memories of Berlin that the music conjures. Their maid serves their meal, and then turns off the phonograph. After a moment’s hesitation, Nelly rises, walks a few steps to the haphazardly placed player and slowly lowers its arm to the record.

The supper scene marks a turning point in Phoenix, one that obviously introduces the movie’s allegorical dimension. Weill’s love song, “Speak Low,” signals Nelly’s backward glance, and Germany’s as well, for both must reconcile with the past—Nelly throughout her life, and her country for the remainder of its history. A line from the song, “Time is so old and love so brief,” seems to allude to Nelly’s wistful quest to find Johnny, her German husband, in order to recapture their romance and as well to the turning of fortune’s wheel, “time so old,” and the storied history of lovers’ betrayals. Johnny, a pianist, most likely turned Nelly over to the Nazis in exchange for his own freedom—and to get control of her money.

Rather improbably, Nelly goes in search of him—but then every new quest for identity and consciousness begins with a return to the past. If audiences view Phoenix as being about anything other than Nelly’s psychological journey, this is the point at which Petzold may lose them. While the writer-director plays at allegory through his elliptical plot, in which only one phoenix rises from the ashes, and through characterization, especially the indifferent Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, the love interest in Barbara), a stand-in for the German people whose nationalism eventually stripped them of their humanity, Hoss’ riveting yet constrained performance keeps these subtextual elements in their proper dimension. First, she is a betrayed wife, and a Holocaust victim. Petzold’s brilliant direction gives us glimmers of Nelly as the archetypal scapegoat, sacrificed in the name of expansion and prosperity.

For instance, when Nelly finds Johnny in the “Phoenix,” the first beer hall she visits, the film’s allegorical dimension becomes apparent, supported by the fact that Johnny does not recognize his wife. Germany, too, was blind to its sins after the war—or at least pretended to be. Nelly, desperate for an anchor on which to build her new life, seizes upon Johnny’s plan to use her astonishing resemblance to his “dead wife” in order to claim her estate. Rather than belaboring the rebarbative implications of Johnny’s actions, including the fact that his betrayal of Nelly to the Nazis may have been the start of his plan, it is Nelly’s movie and her quest that drives the film. The courageous qualities she used to save herself at Auschwitz she now employs in the practice of remembering, the necessary next step in her journey toward a new identity.

The resulting process of fitting the pieces of herself together, including finding her “voice”—Hoss’ jazz-style delivery of “Speak Low” unfolds like the supper scene, expertly choreographed and performed—leads to a satisfying denouement, although one that sacrifices the movie’s allegorical subtext. Like J. Lee Thompson’s Return from the Ashes (1965), which starred Ingrid Thulin and Maximilian Schell, Phoenix is based on French author Hubert Monteilhet’s novel of the same name. Both films draw upon the conventions of film noir. In fact, Phoenix is reminiscent of Carol Reed’s The Third Man in its narrative style and its use of music. What distinguishes Phoenix is its setting in the immediate aftermath of the liberation, when many German Jews (and countless others) had no homes, and no family with whom to celebrate their survival. And it would be nearly 20 years before their Nazi tormentors were brought to justice by the German state.

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