“Phoenix,” Christian Petzold’s allegorical story set in post-war Germany, is almost indescribably deep, layered and complex. Adapted from the poorly regarded French novel Le Retour des Cendres (Return from the Ashes), Petzold, writing with Harun Farocki has constructed a metaphor for Germany and the German people as they struggled to deal with their post-war guilt and complicity in the extermination of the Jews.
Shot and left for dead as the Nazis were retreating from the concentration camps, Nelly returns to Berlin under the care of her best friend Lene. The plastic surgeon assigned to her, echoing the unspoken thoughts of too many German citizens of the time, pointedly asks, “You’re a Jewess. Why did you come back?” Nelly is genuinely perplexed by that question as she never self-identified as a Jew, making the tragedy that befell her in the camps all the more difficult for her to grasp.
Shot, scarred and horribly disfigured under the bloody bandages adorning her head, the doctor gives her a choice of faces for her re-creation. Nelly will have none of it; she wants her old face back. If she doesn’t look like herself, how will her beloved husband Johnny recognize her? Lene, whose job is to locate survivors and tally the dead from catalogues left behind by the Nazis, is distressed. Johnny is not who Nelly believes him to be. It was actually he who betrayed her. He is, as she tries to explain to an obtuse Nelly, a traitor. It’s 1946 and Lene believes they should focus only on the future and that future lies in what is now Palestine but will soon be Israel. Nelly’s money, for she has inherited vast wealth from all the relatives who perished in the Holocaust, would help build a new life in the new Jewish state. It would be a fresh start, one needed as badly by Lene as it should be by Nelly for Lene suffers from survivor’s guilt having spent the entire war in England, safe from the horrors of Germany. But Nelly, still living in the past, does not believe her friend and sets out to find Johnny, convinced her husband truly loves her as she loves him.
Nelly, a singer in her pre-war life, locates him in a night club, the Phoenix, where, no longer a pianist, he performs menial tasks. Tellingly, he is now known by the more Germanic name Johannes and he doesn’t recognize Nelly as his former wife, devastating her. But he recognizes a vague resemblance and proposes a scheme to her that will net both of them a great deal of money. His wife, he explains, perished in the camps and her fortune lays unclaimed. She looks enough like his former wife to fool the authorities if he tutors her in her manners and teaches her to forge Nelly’s handwriting. Once he is satisfied with her progress, he will stage her return as a survivor of the camps, using mutual friends as his witnesses. He and she will split the money and go their separate ways. Still besotted, she goes along with the scheme believing that his motives born of desperation will eventually give way to the love they had. With each reconstruction of a part of Nelly’s past from Johnny’s point of view, she finds herself being reborn as herself, a self that was lost in the camps and that is intimately tied to her past with Johnny,
This is no “Random Harvest,” a romantic film of the 1940s where a man suffers a blow that results in amnesia and his frantic wife sets about recreating episodes of their past life to reawaken him. Johnny needs no reawakening because both his past and present actions are not those of a man in love. For whatever reason he chose to betray Nelly in the past, his present betrayal is as profound. This is film noir in both subject matter and cinematography. Nelly is almost always seen in shadow, in darkness despite the light around her. Her life is that darkness and try as she will, she cannot seem to get the cloud to lift. Her optimism about her future is on a collision course with her past and Petzold’s pacing and style propel this story forward like a thriller told with the accompaniment of Nelly’s favorite song, “Speak Low,” whose lyrics mirror the path her love story will take - “Love is a spark, lost in the dark.”
More importantly, though, Petzold has used the story of Nelly and her continued betrayal by Johnny as a metaphor for Germany’s inability to see the future consequences of past bad acts. The war is over; we lost; we’ll pay monetary reparations; what else do you want? Philosophically for decades to come, the wartime generation refused to acknowledge complicity with the Nazis. The return of the few remaining Jews was an embarrassment, a tangible reminder of a time they would prefer to forget. Johnny’s survival, like that of post-war Germany, was based on denial and inuring himself to the truth. Like the question facing Nelly at the beginning, is the fate of the country in re-creating itself or reconstructing what it was? For too many years, reconstruction was the goal. It was not until the presidency of Richard von Weizacker (1984-1994) that a collective clear-eyed position began to be expressed. As he said, “He who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the future.” Von Weizacker, under whose presidency the reunification of the two Germanys occurred, also said, “All of us, whether guilty or not, whether old or young, must accept the past. It is not a case of coming to terms with the past. That is not possible. It cannot be subsequently modified or undone… There cannot be any reconciliation without remembrance.” This is the story that Petzold tells through Nelly, Lene and Johnny.
Superbly acted, there are basically no weaknesses. Nina Hoss as Nelly is haunting, desperate and obtuse, until she is no longer. Nina Kunzendorf as Lene tragically imparts the difficulty of remaining stalwart while suffering the irremediable guilt of living. And Ronald Zehrfeld as Johnny bears the largest burden because he represents the psyche of an entire country, showing occasional signs of remorse and awareness that he successfully covers with denial and the continued need to survive on the entrails of victims. “Phoenix” is an ironic title for the film for no one, as it turns out, rises from these ashes; they instead only create more. Like the country, it will be a long time before any of them will be able to face those ashes and accept them before rising again.
The cinematography is light and shadow, mirroring the story being told. The production design evokes the broken Berlin of 1946, battered, bombed and treacherous. The score by Stefan Will is evocatively melancholy and the choice of songs, all by German exile Kurt Weil, reflect the tragic course of the story.
But it is the direction and writing that make this as perfect a film as may be possible to make. For as surely as the story was marching to what may have seemed like an inevitable end, the final shot is perhaps the most devastating punctuation mark ever.
Do not miss this film. I saw it twice and will, in all likelihood, view it again.
Find it on Netflix. In German with English subtitles.