In post-war Berlin a car travels through a military checkpoint carrying a passenger with a heavily bandaged face. This is Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a Holocaust survivor returning from the camps with a near-fatal bullet wound to her face. She undergoes surgery to reconstruct her face and afterwards returns to the cabaret club she once sang at to find her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Johnny, however, does not recognise her but as he believes she does bear some similarity to his wife he asks Nelly to impersonate herself in order to attain her inheritance money. Despite her continued romantic feelings for her husband Nelly learns a secret from their past that places everything in a new perspective.
The Critics Said
“Phoenix works on so many levels, it’s the kind of piece that can be dissected and appreciated for decades. And I expect it will be.” – Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com
“Never less than intriguing, coolly intelligent and flawlessly paced, Phoenix often feels trapped in the logic of its conceit. Neither the full horror nor the absurdity of Nelly’s situation registers, partly because the self-conscious genre touches keep her story at a distance.” – A.O. Scott, The New York Times
Country: Germany, Poland
Language: German, English
Director: Christian Petzold
Writers: Christian Petzold, Harun Farocki, Hubert Monteilhet
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf
Runtime: 98 minutes
Loosely based on Hubert Monteilhet’s novel Le Retour des cendres, Christian Petzold’s contribution to the saturated wartime drama genre is driven by a desire to explore not only the scars that the Second World War left on Germany, Berlin and its population in the immediate post-war years but also the strength of love in the face of such world-changing catastrophe. Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), the protagonist of Phoenix, has suffered the horrors of Auschwitz but those horrors are only briefly alluded to and the scars she bears at the start of the film are withheld from view. Channeling Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), Petzold traces the changes of identity taking place in post-war Germany on an individual and a national level.
Nelly returns from Auschwitz to Berlin with her face shattered by a bullet and hidden underneath swathes of bloodstained bandages. Helping her is her old friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a worker with the Jewish Agency who settles Nelly in the city and helps arrange the surgery she needs to rebuild her face, a procedure that will change her appearance irrevocably. This change proves to be crucial for the story to follow as after her rehabilitation Nelly returns to the cabaret club at which she sang before the war in order to find her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). To her surprise, Johnny doesn’t recognise her. He believes Nelly died during the war but after disclosing to her that she bears a resemblance to his wife he instigates a plan to claim an undisclosed inheritance from her family, asking Nelly – a stranger, to him – to pose as herself in order to do so.
Johnny’s attempts to shape Nelly into his own image of her takes up the majority of the first two acts, his desperation that she conform to his memory of his wife so clearly evocative of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Scottie’s manic attempts to resurrect his dead lover by moulding the stranger Judy to her exact likeness. Unlike Scottie, Johnny is not motivated by an irrepressible desire to see his dead love again but by a superficial self-interest and is ready to taint her memory for his material gain. Regardless of his motives he fails to recognise Nelly despite regular signs, the identicality of her handwriting, for instance, or Nelly’s intimate knowledge of life inside the concentration camps. A letter written by Lene to Nelly perhaps holds the key to Johnny’s ignorance when she writes, ‘I feel more drawn to our dead than our living.’ Johnny is drawn to the pre-war ideal of his wife and her inviolable memory and is blinded to the possibility that she is still alive.
Christian Petzold draws all of this out through the tentative relationships establishing themselves in a city that is itself still to find its equilibrium after war has reduced much of it to ashes. The director skilfully integrates character and location so that the signs of destruction and re-emerging identities of both are explored simultaneously. One shot in particular neatly visualises this, Nelly walking among the rubble of buildings on her way to the Phoenix club at which she once sang, its sign lit bright and scarlet in the dark of the evening. There is little music throughout the film and when it does appear its source is usually diegetic. This silence is notable for the emphasis it places on the climactic scene of the film, in which a song that holds particular memories is finally sung; it creates a powerful sense of closure, of awareness, both for the film’s characters and the viewer. The Berlin of Phoenix is still a city mourning for the cataclysm that has afflicted it; the only joy is to be found within the club that represents a vivid yet fragile link between Nelly’s pre- and post-war life.
Phoenix places a fading love story within the context of significant milestones in Europe’s complex post-war history. Lene’s disaffection with her country directs her attention to Palestine, a brief allusion that acts as a sombre reminder to us that an end to World War doesn’t mean an end to world conflict. As with any historical fiction the viewer occupies a position of privilege, granted the power of hindsight and therefore able to see things that its characters cannot. Phoenix cleverly offers this privilege on a level more personal to the characters; we know what Johnny does not or will not consider, that his wife is alive and well. Despite the eagerness with which he moulds her to his vision he holds little power over her identity. It is only her love for him which grants him any power and even this is finite. From our position of privilege we can see Johnny’s true nature and the real story of Phoenix concerns Nelly’s willingness and her ability to catch up to us. In this fascinating, poignant film Christian Petzold has not articulated the horrors of war like so many have before him, only what is left behind when those horrors have dissipated. It looks nothing like peace.
More by Christian Petzold
Barbara (2012) – Nina Hoss stars once more in Christian Petzold’s story of a nurse who receives close scrutiny from the Stasi in 1980’s East Germany after she files a request to leave the country. The film was received warmly at the 2012 Berlinale, Petzold receiving an award for the Silver Bear and the film a nomination for the Golden Bear, deserved accolades for another film that showcases the clarity of the director’s storytelling.