Christian Petzold’s Phoenix is a story of impossible return. Nelly (played by a fragile yet commanding Nina Hoss) returns from a concentration camp disfigured, with romantic notions of returning to her old life. She wants her old face, her old home, her old husband (Johnny, played by the blue-eyed, robust Ronald Zehrfeld). Her friend and Jewish Agency worker, Lene, wants the precise opposite. She can no longer stand the sound of German songs, can’t bear to simply forgive and forget, and plans to start a new life in Israel with Nelly in tow. One longs for the past, the other for a brighter future.
The Nelly we are introduced to at the start of the film is severely wounded, her face fully clothed in bandages, channelling something out of George Franju’s post-war horror classic Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage). She sees a cosmetic surgeon, asking him to make her disfigured face look exactly as it used to. The surgeon is initially reluctant, warning that it’s extremely difficult to get it exactly the same, stressing “a new face is an advantage”; a chance to start afresh. Nelly insists. Later, Lene remarks on Nelly’s successful facial “reconstruction”, before quickly correcting herself to “restoration” (Wiederherstellung, literally “making as it was”). The difference is subtle but of crucial symbolic significance. Nelly does not want to start again, she wants to return.
Therein lies the great tragedy underpinning Phoenix. You cannot return to a life that no longer exists. Johnny no longer recognises Nelly, seeing her as but a doppelgänger, whom he plans on exploiting to claim Nelly’s inheritance. Then, like Scottie to Madeline in Vertigo, he fashions this Nelly-double in the image of the ‘dead’ Nelly, simultaneously emboldening her hopes of reclaiming Johnny’s affections and torturing her with his lack of recognition. This process is painful to watch, and demands the audience to suspend their disbelief in the sometimes ridiculous-seeming premise of Johnny failing to recognise her for who she really is.1 Phoenix rewards those who do buy into its classical melodramatic modes, with the strange sadness and frustration of the zombie-like Nina Hoss becoming ever more potent as the film goes on, and reaching near perfection in its symbiosis of form and theme.
While this review may have concentrated on the surface drama of Phoenix thus far, the real brilliance of Phoenix lies in its revisionist function in righting a perceived injustice in German film history. In Germany directly following the war, there was a tendency for audiences to steer away from films that dealt too closely with the horrors of the Third Reich, finding solace in the more optimistic and cheery vision of home offered by escapist Heimatfilme. Stories, like Phoenix, of survivors and of camp returnees were few and far between. One exception is Peter Lorre’s The Lost One (1951), which was a film of longstanding fascination to Phoenix co-writer Harun Farocki, and which director Christian Petzold said “greatly influenced him” in making Phoenix, along with Wolfgang Staudte’s Murderers Among Us (1946).2 Both films, like Phoenix, tell the story of returnees who face the reality of their destroyed homes, with both films grouped among a small movement of postwar Trümmerfilm (“rubble films”) that dealt with the impact of WWII.
With Phoenix, Petzold and Farocki essentially revive the lost tradition of the Trümmerfilm, engaging with and retroactively contributing to this undersung period of German film history. It’s a film deserving of inclusion among the best German films, one that is not only of great emotional power and consummate beauty, but one that meaningfully engages and contributes to its nation’s film history.
Disclosure: Jessica Ellicott is the Materials & Content Coordinator for the Sydney Film Festival. She initially saw Phoenix in France in January, which is when a version of this review was originally logged.
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