PHOENIX (2014) directed by Christian Petzold (Germany)
review by Cynthia Webb
Do we ever really know or really see our partners in love and in life?
Is the beloved seen in the clear light of reality, or rather as we want them to be?
How far can the ability to deceive oneself and one’s loved one really go?
Is this what is behind the many breakdowns in relationships when the illusory image eventually breaks down, or when one person sees behind the mask of the beloved other?
Human beings are infinitely complex and capable of the unexpected.
In the film “PHOENIX”, these questions are all the more poignant, because they are raised in the most tragic circumstances. A Jewish woman named Nelly returns to Berlin, like a phoenix rising from the ashes of the Nazi Concentration Camps. A survivor returning in facial bandages, and who is in the care of a friend, Lene, who worked in an official office, and knows that Nelly’s German (a Gentile) husband had not only betrayed her to the Nazis, but also divorced her, and will now be wanting to access her fortune if she reappears.
But Nelly is in a condition of extreme shock and has lost contact with her own identity. The one thing she knows is that she once had comfort and love with Johnny, a musician. She has had her love for him in her heart and mind, helping her to survive the horror of the Camp, and now she is seeking him, even after her bandages after plastic surgery have been recently removed, and her face is still bruised, blackened and her expression is grief stricken.
As this is now post-war Berlin under United States Army occupation, she eventually finds him working in a club appropriately called PHOENIX.
In Johnny’s mind his wife is dead. It is well known that many German men, who had married Jewish women, divorced their wives who’d been taken to the Camps, in the extreme conditions of World War Two.
When Johnny (now Johannes) sees a pathetic trembling woman who resembles his ex-wife Nelly, she is holding back, watching and waiting to see his reaction. But he doesn’t recognise her, and quickly conceives a plan of recreating this sad creature to play his wife, returning from the Camp by train….the very same way that she was transported to the concentration camp.
Just like a film director, sees the scenario in his mind. He trains her to write, and to behave in the way he saw his wife behave. He has her change her hair and there is a victorious red dress for her to arrive home in. He plans that he will notify her friends ( her family are all dead) and he will accompany them to the train station, and receive her back into his life, and thereby get access to the financial fortune of her murdered family. There are references to the cinema history – when he shows her the cover of a magazine with a picture of Hedy Lamarr, and references to various famous films.
Nelly’s friend Lene, who has nursed her after her facial operation, warns her many times, but Nelly is longing for things to be as they once were, and that seems to be driving her behaviour. Or does she only want to see who her husband really is, and how far he will go? Somewhere during the course of the story, one attitude becomes the other…. we are not sure of the exact moment.
Johnny is blinded by his own desire for wealth, while working a menial job in the ruins of Berlin. Even after this pathetic and sad waif of a woman has been recreated into someone that people instantly recognise as the real Nelly he still believes that Nelly is dead, and that his plan will work. He still tells her that she is different from the real Nelly – because he wants and therefore believes it to be so.
Of course, this all recalls the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece, “Vertigo”, (1958) where James Stewart’s character sees a woman who resembles his lost love, played by Kim Novak, and persuades her to co-operate with his crazy plan to re-model her. She also plays along, because she loves the man.
So, here in “PHOENIX”, lurk uncomfortable questions of identity, of self-deception, and about the blindness that often accompanies love. They are in our minds as we watch this fascinating game being played out between the couple.
It is all very unsettling. All the more so, because even the innocent (or not so innocent?) German friends, who meet the returning Nelly as she leaves the train, are willing to believe, conveniently blind to the truth that should be plain to see. In the final scene celebrating with their friends, where Johannes plays the piano, and she sings “Speak Low” – a song that obviously means a lot to the couple, the moments are charged with many emotions. It is a situation where the truth might reveal itself once and for all. You must see the film, to know the outcome.
Frightening thoughts about the ambiguities present in nature of love will be your companion long after you see this enigmatic film.
PHOENIX is now getting limited cinema release in Australia, (December 2015).
Copyright, December 2015 – Cynthia Webb