With Phoenix, New Wave German director Christian Petzold comes the closest in his two-decade career to the third rail of German history: Nazis, their collaborators, and their victims. Set in Berlin 1945, the remnants and the refugees, the city and the countryside are still reeling from the consequences of the war. Echoing past classics, this is the vintage setting for the moral ambiguities of film noir, while creating a new showcase for Petzold’s frequent muse Nina Hoss to create an indelible character.
It’s always night in the first half, and the opening scenes recall Dark Passage (1947), but instead of Humphrey Bogart, the escaped prisoner swathed in bandages is a woman, Nelly (Hoss), trying to get through a checkpoint. Her driver/protector, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), curtly defends her frail friend from the glare of soldiers’ flashlights: “She’s not Eva Braun. She’s from the camps.” At a private clinic, a plastic surgeon suggests the changes he can make from Nelly’s shattered and chipped bones, but she insists “I want to look like I did” when she was a nightclub singer, pointing to a photograph that Lene kept of her.
After Nelly asks one by one the fate of her relatives, Lene intones “Dead” and shows her a group photograph from happier days. An “X” is marked across Nelly’s beloved sister, Esther, and circles note friends who were Nazis. But Nelly is only interested if Lene has found the unmarked man, her husband and accompanist Johnny. Lene, who declares that Nelly’s songs were the only German she could stand listening to when she was in exile in London, argues that it was the non-Jewish Johnny who turned in his Jewish wife. Nelly counters that it was her determination to return to her beloved Johnny that got her through the degradation and horror to survive.
While Nelly recovers in a hotel, Lene makes plans for their emigration to Israel, and assures Nelly that her care will be paid for by her family’s bank account in Switzerland. Yet Nelly is noncommittal (both to Lene’s affection and her suggestions), and as soon as she feels strong enough, she sneaks out at night into the ruined city. She scurries past Allied soldiers enjoying the nightclubs in what now looks like a tawdry red light district before she espies Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who now works as a waiter at the Phoenix Club. She retreats in the darkness unseen as he drags a protesting waitress right past her for a forced quickie in a dark alley.
Nelly returns to the hotel to challenge Lene for not telling her Johnny’s alive, but Lene calls him a traitor, shows her damning files on him, warns of dangers, and gives her a revolver for protection. Nelly simply can’t resist and goes back to the bar for a job, calling herself Esther. Johnny’s surprised at the name: “There aren’t many Esthers left.” He now insists on being called Johannes. Her hope that he will recognize her takes a bizarre turn when his interest in her is for a more selfish proposal: to impersonate his wife, who he is absolutely sure is dead, so he can get hold of her family’s bank account. She fishes: “Do I look like her?” Johannes: “You will.” He offers her a place to stay while he trains her, for a (small) cut of the proceeds.
Their transaction is something of a twist on The Return of Martin Guerre and its American remake Sommersby, crossed with Hitchcock’s Vertigo. In a claustrophobic basement apartment, Johnny brusquely leads her through lessons, starting with instructions regarding her signature. He has her copy his wife’s from a card he saved so she can sign bank documents. The more Johnny wants her to be an imitation of his wife, the more the real Nelly starts coming alive again.
After first playing along with his crass suggestions for stylish shoes and dress, Nelly actively changes her make-up and dyes her hair to the dark brown he knew and seductively assists in her own resurrection. Like the real Holocaust survivors interviewed in the documentary Four Seasons Lodge, she wants to forget and get back to normalcy and out in the sunshine. In portraying a damaged woman madly in love, Hoss stunningly transforms as Nelly gains confidence, and she dynamically builds on the tremendous chemistry she and Zehrfeld developed in Petzold’s Barbara three years ago to pull off this complicated and layered dyad.
The script was based on Hubert Monteilhet’s Return from the Ashes (1961), and the (out-of-print) English translation was the basis for J. Lee Thompson’s (Cape Fear) forgotten but darkly chilling 1965 film. The script by Julius Epstein (Casablanca) kept the original Paris setting and the husband (an unusually oily Maximilian Schell) as a Polish chess master gigolo cad, but it simplified his crimes to Double Indemnity-like infidelity and murder. With the German setting ratcheting up the complexity in how the war and the Holocaust impacted the characters, Petzold and Harun Farocki’s new script retains the book’s ironic impersonation scheme and adds suspense surrounding the husband’s past actions and present reactions.
The portrayal of the Holocaust survivor is even more sensitive. Petzold fashioned Nelly’s dialogue from witnesses, as heard in the Verdict on Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963-1965 and the Shoah Foundation’s oral histories, to capture a sense of traumatized communication. As to the distastefulness of manipulating a victim of genocide (which probably helped doom the earlier film at the box office), that type of criminality still continues today, in Bernard Madoff cheating Elie Wiesel’s foundation and in another multimillion dollar fraud scandal at the Claims Conference that provides restitution payments. Phoenix grippingly proves that the noir genre is still a powerful cinematic tool to explore dark souls.