In the rubble that was post-war Berlin, survivors of the war and the camps wander like ghosts looking for the familiar in places and people.
“Phoenix” is noir at its darkest, a story of a missing heir, a treacherous husband, and broken hearts lost in the cracks of a devastating world war.
After her rescue from the concentration camp by friend Lene Winter, Nelly Lenz, her face disfigured by a bullet to the head in Auschwitz, searches for herself. She doesn’t see herself in the mirror despite excellent work by the plastic surgeon. Nina Hoss is riveting as Nelly, physically fragile but so strong willed that she survived Auschwitz and continues to search for her past life, particularly for her husband Johnny. Ms. Hoss makes Nelly complex, lived in, and shattered. She is broken but determined. Pre-War Nelly was a singer, she cared about Johnny and music and her jolly pre-war life. But to the Nazis, she was a Jew. Johnny hid her existence for some time, but then she was discovered.
Or was she? According to Lene, Johnny turned her in. We see the divorce papers to show that he saved himself by betraying her. Or was it ever a choice?
Nelly searches night time Berlin for Johnny, finds the wrong people, and a club called Phoenix. Its neon-lit charcoal gray shows it as a grungy, desperate attempt at recreating 1930s Berlin nightlife. Two women dress alike and sing old German and American songs. Nelly finds Johnny, but he denies the name (going now by Johannes) and is sure she is not his wife. He convinces her to pretend to be Nelly — he will groom her, model her, train her — so as to inherit her family fortune. He’ll split with her, he says.
As Johnny Lenz, Ronald Zehrfeld has a sad, bad boy charm. While there is no comparison with his wife and her lost family, he too is broken, like the devastated Berlin. The film is oddly suspenseful, though we cannot help but know how it will turn out. Nelly comes home from Johnny’s basement room and tells Lene the plan to disguise herself as herself in Johnny’s plan — think “Anastasia.” Lene tries to argue for their emigration to Israel, but Nelly is adamant that she doesn’t consider herself a Jew and all she wants is her husband. The next time Nelly goes home, Lene is gone forever.
Lene, the wonderful Nina Kunzendorf, cannot bear to hear the German songs she sang before the Nazis decided to annihilate the German Jews. And the Polish Jews. And all the Jews. She was part of Germany that was and now she cannot bear to hear German songs. Speak Low, with music by the German ex-pat Kurt Weill (lyrics by Ogden Nash), runs through the film and is set up to be heartbreaking. Nelly used to sing it, accompanied by her pianist husband Johnny. Nelly promises to one day sing it again for Lene. We cannot believe she will, or even can, but eventually she does on the day she acknowledges that Lene was right about Johnny all along.
Christian Petzold directed his own screen play, co-written with Harun Farock, based on a novel by Hubert Monteilhet (Le Retour des Cendres), which is also the basis of a 1965 film by J. Lee Thompson, “Return From the Ashes.”
This is a tale of two movies. Phoenix, made in 2014, which I saw this summer at my local movie house. The other, Return From the Ashes, was made in 1965, and I watched it on DVD out of curiosity, since it is said to be closer to the original source material. Two quite different films with the same plot points, based on a French crime thriller by a crime writer, Hugo Monteilhet. I cannot verify this because I haven’t found the book.
I found Phoenix moving and riveting, but I also found the disparity between two films based on the same book to be fascinating. Clearly screenwriter Julius Epstein and director J. Lee Thompson were filming a nourish thriller based on the novel when they made Return from the Ashes. Petzold and Farock, however, had a different story to tell with similar plot elements. Instead of a French Jew returning to France at the end of the war, as in the film Return From the Ashes, Petzold’s German Jew, who spent a great deal of pre-war time in Paris, returns from Poland to Germany. There is no romance in Phoenix, there is no philandering. There is no sex. Where, in the earlier film, the husband betrays the missing wife with other women, including her own stepdaughter. But he did not betray his wife to the Nazis as in Phoenix. Return From the Ashes is just a crime story set at the end of World War II where a woman who survived the camps needs plastic surgery to look like herself when she returns to her unfaithful but beloved husband. Phoenix tells the story of a woman who can never find herself despite plastic surgery. Epstein and Thompson flashed back to the past to show how the characters got to where they are. Petzold does not flash back to the past, for it is too far gone. Phoenix shows more of the aftereffects of war, which the earlier film — and perhaps the novel — did not. Both films are interesting, and since they’re really different genres, I could not choose one over the other. While I am glad to have seen Phoenix at the movie house, both films are available on DVD.
So see both, but be warned: The 1965 British crime thriller is entertaining but dated in its style (and its trailer is annoying) and a paler shade of gray. In shades of noir, bear in mind that Phoenix is very much darker and meant more to give us pause than enjoyment.
~ Molly Matera, signing off to read a different novel by Monteilhet.