(This review of “Phoenix” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on December 3, 2015.)
Directed by Christian Petzold
Written by Christian Petzold and Harun Farocki
Starring Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Kunzendorf
Sneaking into Australian cinemas this week with little fanfare comes one of the most important Jewish films of 2015: “Phoenix”, a noir-ish German drama that raises important questions of personal identity, collaboration and betrayal. Set in immediate post-war Berlin, German-Jewish Holocaust survivor and former nightclub singer Nelly (Nina Hoss) has been horribly disfigured. With the assistance of Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a fellow survivor who works for the Jewish Agency, she starts to recover her life, first by taking the opportunity to reconstruct her face. Despite the horrors Nelly went through, all she wants to do is to pick up the pieces: her request to the facial surgeon is, “to look exactly like I used to”. But with such severe injuries, the result is a new face, along with the possibility of a new life, allowing Nelly to pass un-noticed among those she once knew.
Against Lene’s objections, Nelly wants to find her non-Jewish husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may – or may not – have turned her in to the Nazis. She’s a lost and broken soul wandering in a ruined Berlin, where she finds her way to the neon red-lit Phoenix nightclub (the double-entendre of rising from the ashes is intentional). And yes, there’s Johnny, a sleazy survivor ever “on the make”, who does not (or simply refuses to) recognise Nelly but sees enough of a similarity with his presumed dead wife to hatch a plan so that he can obtain her money.
To appreciate “Phoenix”, you must set aside the implausibility of Johnny’s incomprehension that this woman – to her great horror – is, in fact, his very alive wife. In a huge act of emotional subjugation with its horrifying psychological implications, Nelly goes along with the plan, believing that this is the way to regain her life and identity, going so far as taking Johnny’s instructions as how to act like Nelly and helping to create a “back story” for the “fake” Nelly.
Here “Phoenix” contains strong parallels to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958), with its psychological melodrama of masquerade and shifting and duplicate identities. These similarities may not be accidental, as both films are based on post-war French novels. Viewers with sharp memories may recall that this story has been told on film before, in the 1961 British film “The Return from the Ashes”, written by Julius J. Epstein (“Casablanca”). This tangled web of stories based on personal betrayal and psychological dysfunction reflects early attempts by European novelists and film-makers to grapple with the horrors of the Holocaust.
Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear winner Christian Petzold directs “Phoenix” with great visual flair that has made it a universal darling of film critics. Despite this acclaim, “Phoenix” contains many elements that Jewish audiences may find uncomfortable, in the same way as last year’s Polish film, “Ida”, did. Both films show only a couple of depressive Jewish characters in bleak post-war landscapes. Unlike the triumphalism of films like “Exodus”, Zionism seems to offer these survivors little or no hope for the future.
Ultimately, “Phoenix” reveals more about the concerns of post-war Germany than it does about the Holocaust. As Ryan Gilbey wrote in The Guardian, the film’s “warped narrative functions as an allegory for the stories that people and nations recount to themselves in order to go on surviving”. The power of the Holocaust in our memory is now so great that its stories are unexpectedly at risk of being universalised to represent even the fate of Germany.
(In German with English subtitles.)