Jul 29, 2015
A German-Jewish Holocaust survivor, Nelly Lenz, (the extraordinary Nina Hoss) comes back to Berlin after the war, her burned and disfigured face totally bandaged. She has plastic surgery, choosing to resemble her former self, and not a movie star like her surgeon suggests. Nelly wants to reunite with her German husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). She used to be a singer, he a pianist. She comes back to a ravaged Berlin, where her former neighbors are now desperate to survive and to forget and deny everything.
This movie by Christian Petzold is almost pulpy. Phoenix is reminiscent of Eyes Without A Face, 1940s melodramas, of film noir, even of Cabaret. But at the core of this brilliant film is the very real topic of the German reckoning with Nazism.
After refusing to move to Palestine, Nelly stays in Berlin to continue her search for Johnny. She finally finds him, going by a different name, working as a busboy at the Phoenix nightclub. He does not recognize her. Still, it occurs to him that he could use this woman to pretend that she is his returned wife in order to collect her money from reparations. He nicely offers to give her some of it for the ruse.
We are being asked to suspend our disbelief. How can he not recognize her? How can she agree to such a thing? How can she love him? Nelly fabricates an exculpatory fantasy of his not knowing, much like Germans did. Incomprehensibly, she insists on being with him, despite mounting evidence that he betrayed her and that he is abhorrent. Her answer as to why took my breath away.
The question is: after an inconceivable atrocity such as the Holocaust, how can we not suspend our disbelief? If the Holocaust was possible, this story of burning love is also possible.
Petzold balances the twists of the plot and the moral probing of the story (which is based on a novel) by embracing cinematic genres. Realism is insufficient, it seems, to deal head-on with human atrocity and its consequences. The metaphor of a phoenix not only refers to Nelly, who claws her way back to life through love; but to Germany, and how it rose from the ashes through obfuscation, denial, and silent shame, if not sheer opportunistic profiting. Paradoxically, Petzold's reliance on genre actually strengthens the film's j'accuse. Phoenix is both a terrific movie (a stylized fiction, a cultural artifact), and a powerful indictment of German culpability. It also happens to have one of the best endings I've ever seen on film.