In war-damaged Berlin, a disfigured concentration camp survivor strives to rediscover her identity as she searches for the husband who may have betrayed her.
Ashes of Timeby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Phoenix is a powerful metaphor for Germany in the immediate postwar period, a broken country struggling to find its identity. Nelly (Nina Hoss) is released from Auschwitz with her face disfigured, wrapped in bandages like an invisible woman. Her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a worker for a Jewish organisation which helps Jews emigrate to the new country of Israel, arranges plastic surgery for her in the expectation that they will then emigrate together. “A new face can be an advantage,” the surgeon says, offering Nelly a choice of film-star looks. Nelly just wants to look the same as she did before, but that’s no longer completely possible. And now that she’s back in Berlin, she wants to find her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). He may have betrayed her as a Jew to save himself, but although she can’t ignore what people say, and her own suspicions, Nelly still loves him.
Before the war, Nelly was a singer and Johnny was a pianist, but now she finds him working as a potboy in the symbolically named Phoenix nightclub. Her face is so changed that although Johnny feels there is something familiar about it, he doesn’t recognise her as his wife. He believes – or maybe he had only convinced himself – that she died in the concentration camp. He sees a way to turn what he thinks is a chance meeting to his advantage. He persuades Nelly to be his accomplice in impersonating his dead wife – actually herself – so that he can claim her inheritance. The deaths of her parents in the war have made Nelly a rich woman. He says he’ll split the fortune with her. But first he has to make her a convincing claimant by teaching her – as he thinks – how to be Nelly.
She moves into the bare cellar he lives in, in the noirish, ruined city, filmed in a brown-tinged almost post-nuclear darkness. Slowly, this damaged, traumatised woman starts to become herself. As she does, daylight subtly seems to return. Hoss beautifully conveys the complexity of Nelly’s emotions as she keeps her real identity secret, whilst at the same time appearing to learn to act as the person that is – or was – herself. Though she realises as they spend time together that Johnny did, in fact, betray her, she still loves him and she struggles with the contradiction. She’s so grateful that he’s making her into Nelly again that she’s able at times to forget he’s only doing it for the money.
Betrayal is personal for Nelly and Johnny. By implication, it extends to the national betrayal of the Jews by the German people. Living with such betrayal requires hypocrisy. It exists in the blind eye that the innkeeper turned to their regular guest Nelly’s arrest on their premises and the way she’s welcomed back. And it’s in the way that bourgeois German relatives accept Nelly’s improbably healthy, groomed and well dressed return to them, which Johnny stage manages as his plans come to fruition, even though she is apparently straight out of Auschwitz. “They will ask me for my experiences,” Nelly says, nervous that the imposter she is playing would not have anything to recount and must appear to invent them, but also aware, as herself, that the horror of her real experiences cannot be conveyed. “No one will ask,” Johnny replies bluntly. And he’s right. No one wants to know the truth. Everyone is simply relieved that she looks like the old Nelly, no questions are asked, and a celebratory lunch ensues as if nothing has happened in the intervening years. That is, until they insist that Nelly sings for them as she used to do. Johnny panics because he believes imposter Nelly won’t be able to. But of course real Nelly can. She sings ‘their’ song – Kurt Weill’s Speak Low – and as she sings, realisation dawns like a cataclysm.
This is the sixth film that leading German director Christian Petzold has made with Nina Hoss, who has been described as his muse, the last being the Oscar-nominated Barbara in 2012. It would hardly be possible to title this film Phoenix and for it not to implicitly be about the themes of rebirth or regeneration – survival. The themes are delivered by a plot that is at times improbable and demands suspension of disbelief, but nevertheless is compelling and the final reveal is shocking and memorable.
Phoenix is released on 8th May 2015 in the UK