A “Phoenix” Rising from the Ashes of Devastating Trauma

A “Phoenix” Rising from the Ashes of Devastating Trauma August 30, 2015
Nina Hoss as Nelly Lenz, in "Phoenix"
Nina Hoss as concentration camp survivor Nelly Lenz, in “Phoenix”

Call me callous, but I’m wary and cynical whenever I see the word “Holocaust” associated with a new film.  Call it the “Life is Beautiful Effect,” after that loathsome Oscar-winning concentration camp confection.  Call it what you will, but until proven otherwise, I’m always afraid that a film centered on the Holocaust will be a banal, lazy grasp for the label of important.

Please don’t misread me on this, I think the monumental awfulness of Hitler’s Final Solution cannot and should not be ignored as one of the defining events of the 20th Century.  Part of our responsibility as plugged-in world citizens is to be aware and responsive to genocidal acts, whether in Germany, Cambodia, Sudan, or Iraq.

Unquestionably, too, superbly crafted cinematic art has emerged from the Holocaust and its aftermath.  Because I Was a Painter is one such film reviewed by me earlier this year that I recommend without reservation.  To grab one more example, Nicolas Klotz’s 2007 film Heartbeat Detector persuasively, provocatively links Hitler’s treatment of Jews with the dehumanizing effects of contemporary corporate culture.

While it doesn’t attain the heights of those two films, Phoenix is a solid work that has only improved with further contemplation.  Phoenix tells the story of Jewish cabaret singer Nelly Lenz, left for dead at a concentration camp after a disfiguring gunshot wound to the forehead.

The film opens with Nelly crossing the border back into Germany, driven by Red Cross worker and fellow Jew Lene Winter.  Lene is also Nelly’s friend, her only social connection actually, since all of Nelly’s family were murdered in the camps.  Lene is justifiably enraged by what Nelly and her people have endured, pressing for the two of them to migrate to Palestine and create a new life as quickly as possible.

Nelly has other ideas, though.  The hope that impelled her survival in the camps was the anticipated reunion with her non-Jewish, German husband Johnny.  In an effort to scuttle Nelly’s dangerous intention, Lene bluntly informs her that Johnny was the one who buckled under interrogation and divulged her location to the Nazis.

Nelly cannot accept this information, however, and tracks down her pianist husband at a cabaret.  Johnny is no longer playing the piano but labors menially at the Phoenix Nightclub in Berlin’s American sector.

Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) and Nelly outside the Phoenix
Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) and Nelly outside the Phoenix

Nelly immediately, breathlessly recognizes her husband.  But due to her reconstructive surgery, Johnny only sees a mousy woman possessing a slight resemblance to the woman he thinks is dead.

Where Nelly feels the need to bide her time and figure out how to respond to her possible betrayer, Johnny sees a great opportunity.  Since he has no proof of his wife’s demise, Johnny cannot access his wife’s substantial inheritance.  He therefore proposes that Nelly stand in for his deceased wife, so he can get ahold of her money, promising to share the windfall with her.  Like a warped Henry Higgins, Johnny thus begins coaching Nelly on how to act like his wife.

Such a tale could’ve been foisted upon its viewers in the form of overwrought melodrama.  German director Christian Petzold bravely and smartly opts instead for extreme restraint.  His two leads, Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld, let their eyes subtly express their fear, surprise, and affection.  Their sparse dialogue, too, leaves much more unsaid than spoken.  All of this makes the slow build to Phoenix’s climax all the more powerful.

The musical score melds splendidly with these performances, too.  Most of the film is unaccompanied by any music attempting to tell us how to feel, but where there is music, it adds layers to the film’s significance.

Phoenix opens and closes with a double bass/piano duet of Kurt Weill’s jazz standard “Speak Low.”  This smooth ode to love’s transience fits the film perfectly, all the more since Weill was a Jew himself, fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930’s for his own survival.

Then, the song being performed in the cabaret where Nelly rediscovers Johnny is Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.”  A song about love’s obsession, from a musical about divorce and mistaken identity (and written by a closeted gay man, no less), is yet another ideal choice for the film.

Phoenix cleverly plays with questions of identity.  German Johannes has given himself the Americanized stage moniker Johnny.  Nelly retakes her original Jewish name of Esther upon reintroducing herself to Johnny.  Those who were Nazis at the peak of the Third Reich’s power now want nothing to do with that nasty word.

And like the mythical bird of its title, Phoenix concerns itself deeply with the re-formation of the self after devastating trauma.  This trauma is visually represented by Nelly’s surroundings, a Berlin still largely buried under the rubble of Allied bombings.  Nelly, too, literally embodies the suffering of a concentration camp survivor, starting off the film with a mummy-like facial wrap as she numbly shuffles down a hospital hallway.

Nelly in the rubble of postwar Berlin
Nelly in the rubble of postwar Berlin

Over the course of Phoenix, we watch Nelly’s transformation, again portrayed quite literally.  The wraps come off, the bruises heal, the dishwater blonde hair is dyed a lively black, and her hand-me-down clothes are replaced by a vivacious wardrobe.

The much bigger question, though, is what happens to the interior life after such horrors?  Just as Nelly tells the plastic surgeon that she wants her face to look exactly as it did before the shooting, it’s obvious that Nelly initially wants to reconstruct her life as an exact facsimile of her pre-trauma existence.  Only slowly does Nelly acknowledge that her postwar life will involve metamorphosis more than reconstruction.  It’s our privilege as viewers to see Nelly take those first tentative steps.

4 out of 5 stars

(Parents’ guide:  Phoenix is rated PG-13 for “some thematic elements and brief suggestive material.”  There’s nothing in here from which you’d need to shield kids 13 and over.)

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