September 26, 2014 (Germany), July 24, 2015 (United States), release dates
Directed by Christian Petzold
Screenplay by Christian Petzold, Harun Farocki
Based on the novel Le retour des cendres (The Return from the Ashes) by Hubert Monteilhet
Music by Stefan Will
Edited by Bettina Böhler
Cinematography by Hans Fromm
Ronald Zehrfeld as Johannes “Johnny” Lenz
Nina Kunzendorf as Lene Winter
Michael Maaertens as Arzt
Imogen Kogge as Elisabeth
Felix Römer as Geiger
Distributed by The Match Factory
Produced by Schramm Film, Tempus Film
Phoenix is a powerful film about a German woman’s struggle to rebuild her life, her sense of self, her very identity after surviving a concentration camp in World War II. Many films noir produced in the postwar period, in the 1940s and 1950s, address the dislocation and alienation of returning veterans, but Phoenix addresses the trauma of wartime imprisonment. These extraordinary circumstances have shattered Nelly physically and emotionally, and she can think of only one way to get back her sense of herself.
At the start of the film, Nelly Lenz’s face has already been shattered by a bullet under somewhat mysterious circumstances. It’s hard to know what is true and what is false because Lene Winter, Nelly’s friend, is trying to find the surgeon who will reconstruct Nelly’s face, and she must navigate land that is now occupied by “the enemy,” in other words, the Allied forces.
When the narrative starts, Lene Winter is driving at night, with Nelly in the passenger seat. Nelly’s head is bandaged and bloody. When they are stopped at a roadblock by American soldiers, Lene tells them that she is Swiss, and she has a passport to prove it. The American soldier who questions her doesn’t quite believe her, and he demands to see who she is traveling with. He orders Nelly to take off her bandages, and it’s only when he sees her wounds that he allows the two of them to proceed over a barricaded bridge. The narrative reveals later that Nelly and Lene are German—and Jewish. Once they are past the military checkpoints, however, the two main characters, Nelly and Lena, become reliable narrators. The postwar conditions are still treacherous for them, a continuation of what they endured during the war.
(This blog post about Phoenix contains all the spoilers.)
Lene Winter is a lawyer working for the Jewish Agency to identify the victims of war and the concentration camps. Her position gives her some connections that prove useful after the war. She also helps Nelly through her reconstructive surgery and will help her through the legal process of reclaiming her inheritance. She arranges for both of them to move to Israel so they can start new lives. Nelly has other ideas, however: She wants to find her husband, Johnny Lenz, even though he gave her up and identified her as a Jew to the Germans two days after his arrest. Nelly doesn’t know it yet, but he also divorced her right before her arrest. Lene has a copy of the divorce decree, which she was able to retrieve after Johnny tried to steal it from one of the offices near Lene’s. But she hasn’t told Nelly this bit of information just yet.
Nelly is grasping at any ray of hope, and Lene senses that she must proceed delicately. In fact, Lene and Dr. Bongartz, the plastic surgeon, seem to be the only characters who have Nelly’s best interests at heart. All of her family have been killed, and she is almost completely alone.
After her hospital stay, Nelly moves into Lene’s house. Lene has a housekeeper, Elizabeth, who helps both of them during the transition from war to peace, as it were. But it’s still a dangerous time. Nelly finds this out when she goes out at night to look for Johnny. A blind musician, a violin player, that she meets while he is playing on the street tells her that if her husband is a pianist (Nelly used to sing with Johnny before the war), she should look in the clubs. That is, if he is lucky. If he isn’t lucky, she should look on the street because he might be playing an accordion on a corner somewhere. Nelly doesn’t know any clubs, so the musician tells her to look in the American sector.
The name of the first club that Nelly sees is Phoenix, so the title of the film has many shades of meaning for the narrative. For more information about the myth of the Phoenix, click on each list item below:
Nelly finds Johnny in the Phoenix nightclub and tries to talk to him, but he doesn’t seem to recognize her. She has to return again for a chance to talk to him. He still doesn’t seem to recognize her, but she is determined to go back to her previous life, even though that is impossible and the city has been reduced to rubble. Johnny tells Nelly that she looks a lot like his wife, who he says is dead. He wants her to impersonate Nelly (herself) because he wants to claim Nelly’s inheritance. Right now, he has no proof, no physical evidence, that Nelly is dead, so he wants her to return as a survivor. And because Nelly refuses to give up hope, she agrees to Johnny’s plan. Johnny gives the back room of his apartment to Nelly, and she works on her own handwriting, wearing her own clothes, making herself over to look as she did before the war.
When Nelly tells Lene what she plans to do, Lene is furious. She believes that Johnny is a traitor because he betrayed Nelly to the police. But Nelly isn’t willing to let go of Johnny. She even invents a story that she tells Johnny about how the police followed him to his wife’s hiding place and that is how they found her. She’d rather make excuses for him.
The next time that Nelly returns to Lene’s home, she learns from Elisabeth that Lene has committed suicide. Lene leaves a reference letter for Elisabeth, and Elisabeth gives Nelly an envelope that Lene left for her. In it is the divorce decree: Nelly finally learns that Johnny divorced her before her arrest.
Nelly continues acting out Johnny’s plan. Everything is going as he wishes. She meets him and his family at the train station, and everyone greets her as though she is Nelly, a survivor of the concentration camp returning home. Everything goes as Nelly and Johnny rehearsed it. They go back to a family member’s home, and Nelly invites everyone inside so that she can sing once again to Johnny’s piano accompaniment. She sings the song “Speak Low” in English.
This scene is pivotal, and it is very moving. Johnny recognizes her voice as Nelly’s, and Nelly recognizes the power of her own voice. When she places her hand on the piano, Johnny sees the tattooed numbers from the concentration camp on Nelly’s arm. At this point, Nelly stops singing: She realizes that she has found her own voice, literally and figuratively. The music and Nelly’s singing are contrasted with the silence of Johnny’s family members: They, like Johnny, are stunned by the revelation that no one can ignore any longer. In spite of all that she has experienced, Nelly gathers all her inner strength in this final scene.