Phoenix

The only thing I knew about this film before seeing it was that it involved a woman who returns to Germany from a concentration camp at the end of the war, and that it was directed by Christian Petzold and starred Nina Hoss, the same people who were responsible for that excellent film Barbara which we’d seen a couple of years ago. I’d read nothing at all about it beforehand, and neither had I seen any trailers. Not that I often watch trailers anyway, as in my experience they tend to be totally unrepresentative of the films they’re supposed to be promoting, making them look much better or (more often) much worse than they actually are. It doesn’t often happen that I see a film with so little foreknowledge or expectations, but in this case I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

(details below)

We’re plunged straight into the extreme and unreal atmosphere of Germany just after the end of the war, as portrayed in Roberto Rossellini’s Deutschland im Jahre Null or Lars von Trier’s Europa, where we meet a Jewish woman, Nelly, who’s just returned from Auschwitz. She has lost everyone and is alone in the world except for one very good friend Lene, also Jewish, who has spent the war in Switzerland. While Lene has come to hate everything German and can’t wait to emigrate to Palestine, Nelly desperately wants her old life back, and especially her much-loved husband Johnny. Pretty heavy material, and a theme few filmmakers dare to touch, but Christian Petzold handles it perfectly.

— SPOILER WARNING !!! —
Important plot details might be revealed beyond this point…

From the point where the couple find each other again the film requires certain amount of ‘suspension of disbelief’. Although Nelly has changed so much that Johnny doesn’t recognise his own wife, he still sees enough similarity to recruit her to play herself in a scheme to claim his (presumably dead) wife’s inheritance. I found this easily believable at first, not only because she’s had reconstructive surgery following a serious facial injury, but also because of all the other changes in her appearance and behaviour brought about by her experiences in Auschwitz, which, unsurprisingly, have made her a different person, a shadow of her former self. As the film progresses, however, he’s confronted by ever clearer indications that she is in fact his wife. She’s able to imitate his wife’s handwriting and signature perfectly, she has exactly the same shoe size, she’s able to find the secret compartment in the boat where his wife hid from the Nazis… They spend a lot of time together and become increasingly intimate, but still he doesn’t recognise her. I kept wondering when the pretence was finally going to collapse, and found it increasingly difficult to accept that it didn’t. OK, we’re given indications that he’d betrayed his wife to save his own skin (in the book by which the film is mainly inspired, Hubert Monteilhet’s Le Retour des Cendres, this was in fact what had actually happened), and that his guilt about this prevents him from wanting to see the truth: if she’s really his wife, he’ll have to confront what he’s done. But is this really enough of an explanation? I’m still not sure.

Nelly’s behaviour, although certainly strange, is a lot more easily explicable. Lene tries to convince her that Johnny was responsible for her arrest, but she doesn’t want to believe it. The idea of being reunited with him was the only thing that gave her the strength to keep on living while she was in Auschwitz, and she can’t give that up now. She wants to observe him and find out if he really loved his wife, and she gradually becomes convinced that he did – even if he did perhaps betray her out of cowardice. She is also shocked and hurt by the fact that he doesn’t recognise her, and sees this as proof that she’s no longer the person she once was. She is waiting for him to recognise her spontaneously, as this will show that she’s really her old self after all. And if her behaviour still seems irrational, then that’s because she really has no plan and is just following her intuition and improvising.

The sort of situation where someone has to pretend to be someone else impersonating them (or, as in Victor Victoria, where a woman pretends to be a man impersonating a woman), is normally only found in comedy, where it doesn’t really matter if the situation is believable as long as people find it entertaining. In a serious drama, however, such a far-fetched plot could pose more of a problem. Fortunately in this case the acting is so good and the film so well made generally that it didn’t really bother me. The set designs are excellent and the ruins of Berlin realistic, and everything about the film combines to re-create the very particular atmosphere of Germany just after the war has ended: the hopelessness, the lack of direction, and the feeling of a country starting again from scratch. The embarrassed and uncomfortable reactions Nelly gets from people after her ‘reappearance’ are brilliantly portrayed, and we get a real feeling for how different the world looks to someone who’s just returned from a concentration camp compared to the experience of those who spent the war at home, no matter how hard that might have been. The film makes obvious references to classics such as Eyes Without a Face and Vertigo, and I also noticed a certain Fassbinder influence here and there, especially in the wonderful final scene.

Many a good film is spoiled by a bad ending, but in this one it’s perfect. We’re kept guessing right up to the last moment, and when the end finally comes it’s a powerful climax in which Johnny realises that his wife has returned from the dead. After which Nelly leaves the room, and how the characters continue their lives after that is left entirely up to our imagination. In other words the sort of thing Michael Haneke might come up with: a completely open ending with all kinds of possible scenarios as to what follows. This was one of those films which reverberate in your head long after you’ve seen them, and give you plenty to talk about on the way home from the cinema. I definitely want to see it again some time, and I now consider myself a confirmed Christian Petzold fan.

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Details:

title Phoenix
director Christian Petzold
released 2014
actors Nina Hoss
language Deutsch
seen 13/02/2015, at the cinema
further information IMDb

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