Phoenix (2014): Written by Christian Petzold, Harun Farocki, and Hubert Monteilhet, directed by Christian Petzold. Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, and Nina Kunzendorf. Running Time: 98 minutes.
I have long felt that movies centering around (or whose stories are in some way connected to) WWII, Holocaust, and/or other atrocities associated with that era of human history are among the easiest kinds of movies to make. For clarity’s sake, before anyone reading this gets upset, let me stress that I do not mean that confronting the hard, terrible truths of that time are easy, or simple, or quickly dismissed. I do not mean to come across as dismissive of the agony and suffering caused by the megalomaniacal, greedy, cruel, angry, or just plain frightened men that drove events, and obviously I am not saying that such acts can or should be easily forgiven. Nor am I implying that the level of talent and effective collaboration necessary to make a good film about WWII is in any way less than that necessary for any other kind of film.
What I mean is that, since nearly all kinds of stories rely on conflict of some kind, WWII-related films are easy in that, when trying to tell a story about that time period, a conflict and/or readily identifiable bad guy (or bad guys) arrives practically gift-wrapped at your doorstep. There is no need to embellish the acts of Hitler, or Stalin, or the SS, or the Japanese government. There is no need to invent a villain or conflict. The true events themselves are heinous enough that simply showing (or referencing) them as they really happened will inevitably cause anyone with a properly-functioning moral compass to recoil in horror, and to automatically sympathize with whichever victims said film has chosen to focus on. I am not saying that this is a good or bad thing, simply observing how so many films/books/plays/video games/whathaveyou are able to easily lean back on the Nazis as go-to bad guys, almost automatically guaranteeing audience sympathy with their main characters (except, obviously, in cases where the film in question is deliberately upending or deconstructing this tendency, like in Saving Private Ryan or Inglorious Basterds).
It’s one small aspect of our continuing Western cultural obsession with the Nazis, a much broader topic of great enough importance to me that I am already considering how to tackle it more directly in a later series of posts. The reason why I bring it up here is because Phoenix, a German film that centers around the post-war experiences of an Auschwitz survivor, is remarkable in part because of how it uses none of the now almost standard images of Nazi atrocities or the horrors of war to win us over to the heroine’s side. Although we know the main character is a camp survivor, we are offered no memories, flashbacks, or nightmarish dreams (ala Shutter Island) that show exactly what she saw, suffered, and experienced. Everything we need to know can be found in her tortured performance, in the pain etched into her eyes and in her shuffled, beaten walk. No further explanation or display needed.
Said woman is named Nelly, (Nina Hoss), a German-Jewish singer who survived the camps, but not without having her face horribly ravaged. A friend and fellow survivor, the angry and sadly bitter Lene, brings her through the American lines to the Western area of Berlin for reconstructive surgery. In a strange metaphysical twist, the doctor who handles the surgery is played by Michael Maertens, who happened to play another doctor working with skin (albeit in a far creepier manner) in last year’s surreal Finsterworld. She is offered the chance to take on a new face and a new identity, but her response is a shaky-but-firm no; she wants to look as much like she did before as possible.
Her reason for doing this is so that she can find and reunite with her husband, Johnny, who apparently survived the war as well (some of her other friends did not, and others, she is shocked to learn, were active Nazis). This horrifies Lene, who sees emigration to Israel as the only option for Europe’s remaining Jews, but despite her fears, Nelly cannot conceive of doing anything else. Wandering alone at night through the crime-ridden and waste-filled ruins of Berlin (as dreary a dystopia as one can imagine, filled with mountains of debris and lights that cast long, misshapen shadows), she eventually does find him working at a bar called the Phoenix (that this is the nominal inspiration for the film’s title is clear, but the obvious symbolic overtones will be lost on no one). Unsurprisingly though, since her appearance was somewhat altered by surgery, he does not recognize her when they first encounter each other. That said, he does admit that she bears a close resemblance to his “late” wife (his certainty of her death may be a psychological reason he does not realize it’s her), and immediately hatches a plan. He will provide her with some of Nelly’s old clothes, teach her to walk and act like her, and have her memorize key facts of their marriage together. Once that is accomplished, they will go to the authorities to show them that Nelly Lenz has returned.
Why all the chicanery? Since Nelly had several very rich relatives, themselves Jewish, and since all of them died, she has quite an inheritance attached her name (said inheritance is, in fact, what she and Lene are living off of while she tries to get her husband to recognize her). Johnny is aware of this, and as he has been down on his luck since the war’s end, he tells Nelly that once they win over the authorities and she receives the inheritance, they will split everything 50/50, and she will be free to go along her way.
It is a horridly pessimistic and cynical scheme, made hard to watch by how painfully and obviously Nelly yearns for her husband to recognize her. Nina Hoss gives a stunning performance, conveying the right mix of utter brokenness with her hard-to-contain hope that somehow, someway, things can be as they once were. Her only wish is to be able to sing once more with “her Johnny.” Even her most fervent hopes, however, begin to be tested as she grows less and less certain of what really happened that led the authorities to her hiding place. She had been secluded away near a friend’s house, and the family husband seems less than enthused when she returns. Could they have turned her over? Or perhaps there is a grimmer reason why her husband seems so, so certain that his wife is dead and gone? The inevitable possibility that that thought leads to is never spoken, but you can see its implications creep into her eyes and demeanor over time.
The final moment of true realization, for both characters, is a moment of pure cinematic perfection. Christian Petzold knew exactly how to utilize the cards in his hand, and he reveals them each, one by one, in perfect sequence. I was a little unsure halfway through where, exactly, the film was going, and it can be somewhat aggravating how dense the husband is; once you’ve acknowledged how closely resembles a loved one, someone who automatically called you by a pet name, wouldn’t the bells start ringing once they show they can perfectly mimic that person’s handwriting without needing a sample beforehand? That, however, is part of the point- even without a definitive answer to the questions posed above, the degree to which Johnny is unable to recognize his own wife in front of him can’t help but make one wonder.
Phoenix is a film that goes small but hard, dedicating itself wholeheartedly to the story at hand. Like I wrote at the beginning of this review, not once does it feel the need to directly allude to the events of the Holocaust; all the suffering we need to see is in Nelly’s eyes. And in a way, the film’s silence on the past mirrors the silence towards the war displayed by nearly everyone in the city, an unspoken critique of the brief postwar period of German amnesia towards Nazism. As Johnny himself says, when Nelly worries about how detailed she should be in describing the camps to the authorities, he merely replies, “No one will ask.”