Phoenix Tells an Uncomfortable Truth

Film Review

A black Volkswagen approaches an army checkpoint at the Swiss-German border where a bunch of American soldiers, perhaps three or more, cluster around a metal barrier. In the background, a piano and upright bass duet fills the pitch-dark night with a mellow Speak Low. The driver is a woman, perhaps in her early forties, with slicked, raven black hair, a chiseled face and thick eyebrows. She takes a quick inquisitive look to her right before she pulls up. Someone is sitting right next to her, but who?

As the soldier asks for their passports, the camera shifts to unveil a face covered in blood-soaked bandages, a body wrapped in blankets, a piercing gaze — a shattered, tentative body of a woman in the passenger seat. Oblivious to the driver’s pleading, the soldier insists she removes her bandages to confirm her identity. The camera is fixed on him and only her feeble, agonizing moans signal that she obeys. Moments later, perhaps out of shame, he asks her to stop, and the two ladies drive away.

The faceless woman is Nelly, the heroine in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, a devastating, period noir masterpiece about a Holocaust survivor’s search for identity. The film, loosely based on Hubert Monteilhet’s novel Le Retour des Cendres, was co-written by the late Harun Farocki and Christian Petzold who also directs here.

In Phoenix, Nelly (Nina Hoss), a former German singer and Auschwitz survivor, returns to Germany after the war ends in 1945. Her face is disfigured from a gunshot wound she has sustained, and, to her dismay, the reconstructive surgery she undergoes leaves her with a brand new one. Once recovered, Nelly seeks out her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) despite the warnings of Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), her friend and a clerk in the Hall of Jewish Records, that it was probably Johnny who betrayed her to the Germans.

Nelly finds Johnny, a pianist who now goes by Johannes, working as a busboy at a nightclub called Phoenix. Johnny does not recognize Nelly, who introduces herself as Esther, but soon notices some resemblance to his wife whom he thinks is dead. Intent on collecting his dead wife’s inheritance, Johnny convinces Esther to impersonate her with the promise of splitting the money evenly. He painstakingly remodels Esther into Nelly, schooling her in how to look and behave like his late wife.

With Esther’s backstory worked out and her family reunion many a time rehearsed, Esther/Nelly finally reunites with her loved ones. The final sequence is a haunting and tense climax that offers little in the way of resolution as Nelly’s and Johnny’s Speak Low duet leads to an unsettling revelation.

Phoenix is a complex story with a heap of underlying themes expertly woven together by its writer-director. The inheritance plot drives the story forward and serves both as a narrative vehicle to the underlying themes and, together with the frequent return of Kurt Weill’s and Ogden Nash’s Speak Low, a glue that keeps the whole together. Early on, Petzold carefully and subtly plants seemingly insignificant details, only to later return and reveal their importance: a divorce date on an index card that makes a brief appearance at the beginning turns out to carry a much bigger weight later on.

The film owes as much to its writer-director’s storytelling talent as to Nina Hoss’ powerhouse performance. Hoss, who seems to barely move an eyebrow, channels a dizzying array of emotions through her eyes. She is the perfect Nelly.

At its core, the story raises one essential question: how do you pick up the pieces and move on after such trauma? For Nelly, the way forward is to go back to Germany and cling to what once was. For Lene, the way forward is a fresh start in Tel Aviv. Phoenix is thus not only about one individual’s search for identity but also about the conflicting coping strategies of Holocaust survivors.

A frequent complaint among moviegoers, and some film critics, was Johnny’s implausible attitude: after all, how could he not recognize Nelly? In fact, Johnny does recognize her, but he is in denial. He cannot face his guilt, and neither can Germany.

In the final sequence Nelly, having ended the song and finally realized there is no going back, looks at the audience, her baffled family but figuratively Germany, before disappearing into an out-of-focus background. Cinematographer Hans Fromm’s spare and shrewd use of wide shots where Nelly appears dwarfed by her surroundings establishes a sense of place early on and instills the idea that the film is as much about the individual as it is about the social background — Phoenix is as much about Nelly and Johnny as it is about Germany’s blindness to its mistakes. Its ending, particularly the out-of-focus final frame, offers a bleak prospect but no clean-cut resolution. And how realistic would such a resolution be?

Phoenix is storytelling at its finest: at once a tale of the recent past and a cautionary one of what may yet come if we continue to turn a blind eye.