Identity, Loss and the Search for Answers
Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) is a Jewish singer who survived the concentration camps. She had been badly disfigured and had to have facial surgery and has not returned to Berlin with her friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) and she has only one thing on her mind— finding Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), her musician husband in the ruins of the city. She wants to know if he still loves her and if he betrayed her to the Nazis, as Lene claims he has. She does meet him but Johnny does not recognize her. Worse, he asks her to impersonate… Nelly, with a view to grabbing her inheritance.
Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix” is a look at identity, loss and the search for answers in post-WWII Berlin. “Phoenix” demands a certain generous suspension of disbelief that may be more than some audiences are willing to do. Johnny and Nelly are a kind of doomed couple torn apart by the times in which they live. Nelly, made it out of Auschwitz alive, but with a badly disfigured face from a gunshot wound). Accompanied by her friend Lene, a clerk in the Hall of Jewish Records, she travels to a clinic for reconstructive surgery, where she’s told that she can choose any sort of face she wants. Nelly stubbornly insists that she wants to look just as she did before the war, when she was a popular singer, and married to Johnny, a German piano player who may have betrayed Nelly to the Nazis to save his own skin.
In the nightclub that gives the movie its title, Nelly finds Johnny, working as a busboy. He does recognize her but he does notice a bit of resemblance, enough to make him think that this new Nelly might be useful to him in claiming the “dead” Nelly’s family inheritance. This is where we have to suspend belief because we see that Nelly looks so much like she did before the war that is hard to believe that her own husband does not see it. While Nelly tries to reclaim a lost past, Johnny runs in the opposite direction, trying to wipe the record clean of what he was really up to during the war. In between the two of them stands Lene,
who dreams of emigrating to Palestine together with Nelly and starting life anew. The movie also deals with clashing ideologies and coping strategies and these are far more than the inheritance plot and the question of when, if ever, Johnny will come to discover Nelly’s true identity. Director Petzold is a gifted storyteller and he keeps those twists and turns coming and building to a climax that is perfectly orchestrated.
As Nelly, Hoss with the emotions and every movement is open to many possible interpretations. Just as Petzold has orchestrated his plot so Hoss has orchestrated her movements. She does so much while seeming to do so little. Hoss channels her character’s deep physical and psychological wounds through a series of painstaking gestures, staring out at us like a deer caught in the headlights over and over again. As Nelly comes into her own, transforming into the woman who existed before disappearing in the camps, Hoss literally finds a new voice – culminating in an explosive final scene that’s as perfect as they come, as if Petzold had built his entire movie around that one moment. She also gives us the part of Nelly that still loves Johnny, no matter his culpability in her fate, and that maybe always will. Zehrfeld doesn’t invite much sympathy on his own, playing Johnny (very well) as a survivalist whose morals point towards the path of least resistance. Kunzendorf as Lene makes her the most tragic character—we see her as a woman profoundly haunted by the specter of the war and by long suppressed desires and when she is onscreen, the film is all hers.
“Phoenix” is a rare period movie that pulls us into a living, breathing world. It was shot in the Brandenburg region, with some additional work in Wroclaw, Poland. The film is a powerful allegory about mistaken identity (ala Hitchcock) and post-war regeneration using one woman’s harrowing story to explore Germany’s troubled past. The plot alone would probably make this a fascinating film but it’s the masterly craftsmanship and performances that reveal Petzold to be at the top of his game, slowly but surely building his narrative towards an absolute knockout of a finale. “A new face is an advantage,” her doctor tells her, and as the days go by and the bandages slowly come off, it’s clear that Nelly, like the majority of her fellow countrymen, will need to be reborn from the ashes of war, becoming a phoenix in a land striving to shift back to being “normal” again.
Nelly is forced to become her own imposter under the guise of a husband who may either have loved her or betrayed her and she has take on a role she hasn’t played since the war started, being herself. What a perfect plot for Germany who as a nation must try to recreate an identity after being dominated for two decades by the Nazis and then bombed to smithereens by the Allied forces. What we have are historical, political and personal themes all working in the film and layers are gradually peeled away as the movie progresses. We ultimately get to explore the bare emotional traumas lying beneath.
As he is known to do, Petzold underplays the pulpiness of his premise, instead focusing on its complex psychological and emotional undercurrents: “Nelly’s tentative suspicion toward Johnny, whose memory she credits with keeping her alive in Auschwitz, but who may have been responsible for sending her there; sequences of Johnny teaching her to behave like her former self, and to imitate a vivaciousness long lost to trauma; the ambiguous discomfort of the scenes where Johnny, a gentile, coaches the woman he doesn’t realize is his Jewish wife on how to pretend to be a Holocaust survivor”.