A psychological thriller set in the aftermath of World War II, the German director Christian Petzold’s Phoenix is a variant on a myth—the story of Orpheus and Eurydice—that has served many filmmakers. The tale of a poet’s descent into the underworld to retrieve his lost love (whom he loses once again because he cannot help but look back as she follows him from the land of the dead) has been recast by the movies in numerous ways. Jean Cocteau used the myth three times; Alfred Hitchcock made an Orphic thriller with Vertigo. Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus set the story to a samba beat. Science fiction reworkings include Chris Marker’s La Jetée (and its Terry Gilliam remake 12 Monkeys), Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, and both the Tarkovsky and Soderbergh versions of Solaris.
Phoenix is distinguished by taking the Eurydice character’s point of view and daring in using her escape from hell to explore Jewish martyrdom and German guilt. Nelly (Nina Hoss), a German Jew, once a famous singer, an Auschwitz survivor whose facial features have been destroyed, returns to Berlin in 1945, searching the ruins for her gentile husband and accompanist, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who hid her for years before ultimately informing the Gestapo.
Although Phoenix is a period film it shares what film critic Dennis Lim called Petzold’s “overriding vision of contemporary Germany as a phantom zone.” Many of his movies can be read as ghost stories—one of them is even titled Ghosts. Petzold’s first feature, The State I Am In (2001) was haunted by the shade of the German New Left; Yella (2007) suggests that an East German woman drowns in her attempt to escape the Communist regime and lives a spooky afterlife in the West. Jerichow (2008), which transposes the story of The Postman Always Rings Twice to the former East Germany, was haunted by both the war in Afghanistan and the spirit of Hollywood film noir.
Phoenix, which Petzold first began thinking about 15 years ago, in collaboration with his teacher, the late film-essayist Harun Farocki, is trying to work something out that has less to do with actual Jews than with the fact of their absence. As if in a dream, Nelly finds Johnny washing dishes in the nightclub that gives the movie its title. As her face has been surgically reconstructed, he apparently doesn’t recognize her—and yet, her uncanny reappearance inspires him. He recruits the traumatized woman to impersonate his dead wife—which is to say herself—as part of a scheme to recover her confiscated assets.
In a sense, both characters are animated corpses living in the shadows. If Nelly is a largely nocturnal creature who moves like a zombie, the willfully blind Johnny thinks like one. Stunned (and unable to accept the possibility that he betrayed her) she calls herself “Esther,” after a relative who was consumed in the Holocaust, and plays along with Johnny’s mad plan to resurrect Nelly—leaving us to wonder if or when she will accept the truth about him and when or if he will consciously realize whom she actually is.
The movie is fluid, suspenseful, and preposterous—although, more historically than psychologically, and not necessarily in a negative sense. It does seem monumentally improbable that even a self-denying Jew like Nelly, who if I understand the movie’s chronology correctly left Nazi Germany in the early 1930s, would return from the safety of London with her husband in 1938. Still, stranger things have happened, and this is a movie about the unwillingness to face reality. Nor are dreams bound by narrative logic.
Nelly is first seen as a woman without a face, swathed in bandages like a mummy, being driven through the night by her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), another German Jew who, having survived the war in Switzerland (?!) and now working for a Jewish relief agency, is bringing mutilated Nelly to Berlin for treatment. “It’s such a miracle that you survived,” she tells her.
Offered the face of a movie star, Nelly refuses—she wants her old face. Her family may be dead and her apartment a pile of rubble, but she rejects the chance to resettle with Lene in Palestine. Even after Auschwitz, Nelly does not recognize herself as a Jew. It is not just that she cannot bear to leave the country whose songs she sang (even though it sought her annihilation), she has no identity without it … and the German who loved her. Only when she finds Johnny will she know who she is.
Petzold refrains from representing Auschwitz, but the image of Nelly wandering through Berlin’s Trümmerlandschaft (rubble landscape) evokes the juxtaposition that struck Hannah Arendt on visiting Berlin in the aftermath of the war, where studiously ignored photographs of newly liberated concentration-camp survivors were posted amid the debris. German writers like Hans Erich Nossack and Hermann Kasack may have drawn on classical antiquity to describe the Trümmerlandschaft but if the ruins of Berlin inspired “Orphic journeys,” the notion of a new Germany rising from the ashes is the myth that the Germans told themselves. Nelly is not that phoenix.
Johnny suffers a sudden doubt that bedraggled “Esther” can successfully impersonate his glamorous wife but she begs for a chance to do so. Perhaps she imagines that Johnny will realize who she is after seeing her uncanny ability to reproduce the dead woman’s handwriting but somehow he doesn’t. Nor does he want to hear the Auschwitz stories that “Esther” volunteers and correctly assumes that none of the old friends that a miraculously returned Nelly might encounter will want to learn about her experiences either.
Two lines of dialogue encapsulate the characters’ alienated consciousness and mutual self-deception. The first is when Nelly confesses to Lene that in submitting to Johnny’s makeover, she’s become jealous of her younger self. The second is Johnny’s panic when “Esther” becomes too evocative of his dead wife and too knowing about their shared past. “Quit playing ‘Nelly,’ ” he snaps. “It’s not me you must convince.”
One of the leading German directors of his generation, Petzold, 55, seems the one most concerned with German history. Barbara, his first feature to get a wide release in the United States, evoked the future ruins of a soon-to-vanish state, set in deepest East Germany during the last decade of its existence. Here too Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld played out a sort of romance in a treacherous environment of free-floating suspicion and constant surveillance. Hoss, a young doctor exiled from Berlin to a provincial hospital for the crime of seeking an exit visa, is thrown together with the friendly, bearish Zehrfeld, a senior colleague banished from Berlin who could be a Stasi informant, a Communist true believer, or simply smitten by her—or, most likely, all of the above.
Even more than Barbara, Phoenix is a movie about acting. Hoss is particularly nuanced in the scene where Johnny presents “Esther” with an old article of Nelly’s clothing to wear and, for the first time in the movie, she physically experiences herself as Nelly. These “sense memories,” as an actor would call them, contradict even as they play into the farfetched scenario of return that Johnny has carefully scripted.
Phoenix has been freely adapted from a 1961 thriller by the French moralist Hubert Monteilhet, about a treacherous husband who schemes to murder his Jewish wife, returned to Paris from Dachau, to get her fortune. Once optioned by the so-called French Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot, the novel formed the basis for an even sleazier British movie, J. Lee Thompson’s Return From the Ashes, starring Maximilian Schell and Ingrid Thulin. But where Return From the Ashes modeled itself after Psycho, Phoenix draws on Vertigo.
Most obviously Phoenix is haunted by Kurt Weill’s haunting “Speak Low,” a love song that is heard at three crucial moments, including the opening credits and the devastating final scene. “Speak Low” is an expression of irreconcilable melancholy, noting a love that, like a summer day, “withers away too soon.” That it is established as Nelly’s signature song is another bit of poetic license (the song was written by Weill and Ogden Nash for the 1943 Broadway show One Touch of Venus) but a suggestive one.
Weill, who is certainly the most popular, if not the greatest, of the Jewish composers driven from Germany after 1933, is at one point heard singing “Speak Low” himself. (In another suggestive coincidence, the song was originally intended for Marlene Dietrich and was written to be sung by a goddess come to earth.)
As used in the obsessive, allegorical projection that is Phoenix, “Speak Low” is not just Nelly’s loss but Germany’s—the melody of a culture that might be recalled but can never be resurrected.
For more of J. Hoberman’s film criticism for Tablet magazine, click here.