Germany, 2014, 98 minutes, Colour.
Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf.
Directed by Christian Petzold.
It is not often that a film review starts with a recommendation for audience to see it because of the final scene, but this is the case with Phoenix. This final scene is most effective: song, Speak Low, its melody has been heard throughout the film – a song by Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash for the musical, One Touch of Venus, a Pygmalion story of a statue coming to life – and now sung by Nelly, the central character, her husband Johnny playing the piano, and a glimpse of a tattoo which makes all the difference. It is an ending which does not spell out its consequences, leaving it for the audience to respond and to decide.
With a title like Phoenix, it would seem that this is a film about a character rising from ashes to a new life. And that is correct. It is the dramatic story of Nelly, a Jewish woman arrested in Berlin in 1944, interned in the camp at Auschwitz, thought to have died, but returning to Berlin at the end of the war.
Phoenix has been directed by Christian Petzold, director of a number of very successful German dramas, many of which starred Nina Hoss (Barbara, a story about East Germany, Yella, Jerichow). Nina Hoss one a Best Actress award at the Berlin film Festival, 2012, for Barbara and her performance as Nelly is as good and as powerful.
At the opening of the film, Nelly’s face is in bandages as she travels by train from Poland to Germany in the company of a friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf). She goes for an operation for facial reconstruction, wanting her old face as much as possible instead of a new one. But, her face is sufficiently different as she goes to seek out her husband who works in a Berlin club. He does not recognise her. This is very sad for her as she still loves him.
Her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) is a handsome type, with some charm. However, he decides to transform Nelly into his wife, overtones of Pygmalion. There are many scenes where Nelly has to write, walk, be transformed with clothes and make up into Johnny’s wife because he thinks she is dead, but if she is alive, she and he can claim her money.
The audience knows the truth while Johnny does not, so there is a tension in Nelly’s love, her following the directions that Johnny gives her, but her wanting to know whether he actually had betrayed her to the Nazis or not.
The film gradually builds its tension, the focus on Nelly and her anguish and love, the focus on Johnny and his ambitions, the sadness of Nelly’s friend Lene and her despair after the war, and the drama of Nelly’s train ride and alleged arrival from the East – and that final, powerful scene.
1. A satisfying drama? The background of World War II? Germany, the arrest of the Jews, interning the Jews in Auschwitz, the experience of the concentration camps, the release from the camps?
2. The title, Nelly and her rising from the dead? The name of the club?
3. The settings, Berlin, arrivals back from the camps, the homes and recovery? The streets, the thugs, the clubs, the entertainment? The bombed city? The cellar? The countryside? The mansion? Atmosphere and musical score?
4. A portrait of Nelly, the performance by Nina Hoss? Her screen presence? Gaunt, her experience in the camps? Lene and her accompanying, taking her home, helping her with her recovery? Confidante? The repercussions of the camp experience?
5. Nelly, the damage to her face? Going for the plastic surgery, the role of the doctor, his request about her new face, her wanting the old one, yet Johnny not recognising her? The experience of the surgery, her psychological state? Being sustained by her memories of Johnny and their marriage, their working together, the singing, his playing? The successful surgery, the bandages, her wanting to find Johnny?
6. Her going to the club, uncomfortable, the clientele, the two singers and singing Cole Porter, Night and Day? German? English? Her glimpsing Johnny, his work in the club? Lene warning her against the search?
7. Going to the club, calling out to Johnny, her being thrown out? His following her, seeing a resemblance? His proposition, his explaining about his dead wife, his wanting to get her money, his wanting to train her to be like his wife?
8. Memories of the Pygmalion story? Johnny, having Nelly in the cellar, testing her writing, signature, shopping list, her doing it perfectly? Changing her clothes, make up? Changing her walk? The effect on Nelly? Still loving Johnny?
9. Discussing with Lene, Lene’s objections? Going back to the house, the housekeeper, the letter, Lene killing herself? Her leaving the document about Johnny divorcing her?
10. The explanation of all the relatives, in the photo, Johnny explaining who each one was on, what they would do when she returned?
11. The visit to the country, memories of the past, the effect on Nelly, still trusting Johnny? Her going to the mansion and talking with the woman and getting the information about Johnny?
12. The preparation for her return, going to the country, in the train, the railway station, all the relatives meeting her, the story of those would died, the particular greetings of each one?
13. Johnny, audience response to his character, some charm, seeing his venal attitude towards her money, his makeover of Nelly? The revelation, the documents, the prospect of the money? The memories of Auschwitz – and his wanting her to put a tattoo on her arm? Her refusal?
14. The use of the melody of Speak Low throughout the film, from Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash – and the musical, One Touch of Venus (and a statue becoming human)?
15. The finale, the relatives all present, Nelly wanting to sing for them, Johnny playing the piano, the lyrics of Speak Low as they related to her experience, Johnny playing, she seeming tentative? Her changing, singing properly, Johnny stopping his playing, a realisation of the truth, the camera moving to the tattoo on her arm?
16. The power of the ending? What would happen? Nelly and the truth? The relatives? And the truth a bout Johnny and his divorcing her, the set up for her arrest?