Like the bandages wrapped tightly across the face of its physically and emotionally scarred central character, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix slowly unravels itself in multiple layers. On the surface, the film is the stuff of hysterical melodrama, replete with mistaken identities, disguises, loved ones miraculously returning from the dead, facial reconstructive surgeries, and an unclaimed monetary inheritance. But not unlike the best films of Fassbender and Almodovar, Phoenix employs melodrama as the artifice by which to introduce its viewers to deeper and more complex moral questions. Indeed, the central question raised by the film is essentially the same one historians have asked about the Holocaust for the last seven decades: What leads people to commit evil?
Actually, the more accurate moral question raised in Phoenix has more to do with what must be done with those who survived evil and now must confront its uncertain aftermath – a question faced by both Holocaust victims as well as its perpetrators (or at least the perpetrators fortunate enough to escape punishment). Other films dealing with the Holocaust have raised this fecund question before, such as Europa, Europa, Lacombe Lucien, and most recently, Lore. But Phoenix is less concerned with the Holocaust per se as it is with the ways in which war forever imperils marriages and interpersonal relationships, leaving deep and irrevocable emotional and physical wounds.
As the film opens in the weeks following the collapse of the Third Reich, we are introduced to two characters: The first is Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a former musician who survived the concentration camps, but was been left horribly disfigured, not too unlike Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient. The other character is Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), Nelly’s friend, who was able to escape to Switzerland and avoid capture by the SS. As the film opens, Lene is transporting Nelly back to Berlin where she will receive facial reconstruction surgery – something Lene seems much more enthusiastic about than Nelly. It is perhaps not surprising that Nelly has lost any appetite for life that she once had – not only did the Holocaust strip her of her ambition, career, and identity (physical and otherwise), but her friends, family and husband are now either dead or missing. Before operating on her face, Nelly’s physician wisely informs her that for many patients, a new face leading to a new identity may not altogether be a bad thing.
As we gradually learn more and more about her, it becomes apparent how paradoxical of a character Nelly really is. While Jewish in ethnicity, she never really considered herself a Jew, before or after her imprisonment in the camps. While she is close friends with Lene, she is not so sure about their plans to depart Europe indefinitely for Palestine. And most distressing of all, she refuses to believe what Lene tells her about her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) – namely, that he was the one responsible for her horrific fate at the hands of the Nazis. At night, Nelly searches for Johnny on shady street corners and nightclubs. Eventually, she is able to locate him (this is not as big of a spoiler as it sounds). The problem is, of course, that due to her reconstructed face, Johnny does not recognize her, having long assumed his wife died in the concentration camps. But he does acknowledge a striking physical resemblance between Nelly and, well, Nelly, and before long, he has enlisted her in a scheme (stay with me here) to embezzle money from his dead wife’s inheritance by proving that, no, she actually survived the war, and therefore he should be awarded half.
The situation is contrived to the point of absurdity, but is nonetheless effective in speculating a provocative hypothetical question: If your spouse assumed you were dead, and you could masquerade as an entirely different person who bore some physical similarities to you, how would you behave around your spouse? Particularly if that spouse unwittingly revealed him or herself to be lecherous to the point of stealing money and deceiving friends and family? For Johnny, it is a simple question of fairness – Nelly was his wife, after all, and therefore why should he not feel entitled for what he is presumably owed, particularly since no one else is claiming the inheritance. For Nelly, the situation is far more emotionally complicated. She still loves Johnny to the point of looking past his ethical blemishes, whether they’re relatively benign (like stealing unclaimed money) or extreme in their malice (like possibly being responsible for surrendering his wife to die). Perhaps her unflinching love for Johnny is a direct reflection of her experiences in the concentration camps; the hope of being reunited with Johnny was presumably the only thing that kept her going, and now that she is with him (in one form or another), she can resume the idealized life that was so abruptly halted the day she was captured.
Did situations like this really happen during the Holocaust and its immediate aftermath? It’s hard to say, and Phoenix does not contend to be an absolutely faithful rendering of historical time and place. We do know, however, that many ordinary German citizens were complicit with the actions of the Third Reich and chose to turn a blind eye to the numerous horrific events going on around them. Does this make these individuals any less susceptible to the severe penalties imposed on high-ranking SS officials during the Nuremberg trials? Johnny does not seem like an evil person and is certainly not an ideologue – perhaps it is most accurate to call him opportunistic at a time when much of Berlin was lawless and destitute. But then again, we see Johnny through the distorted perspective of the traumatized Nelly. The question viewers will ask is if Johnny is not evil, what would have ever prompted him to alert Nazi officials of Nelly’s Jewish identity, resulting in her imprisonment and disfigurement? And if Nelly is aware of this fact, along with Johnny’s harebrained scheming, why does she continue this ridiculous masquerading of her old self? Is she not guilty of the same hypocrisy, self-denial, and turning of a blind eye as the rest of the complicit German population?
These are extremely complex questions that, at a surface level, seem only relevant to Phoenix’s immediate narrative concerns – namely, the whole charade of Nelly pretending to be herself for the purposes of resuscitating her pre-Holocaust identity along with her marriage. But upon closer examination, the three central characters in Phoenix appear to represent three different strands of Holocaust survivors and their respective attitudes toward a post-war Germany. Lene represents continental Jews who believe there is no hope in resuming normalcy in Europe, and the only solution is to depart the continent altogether for the hope of refuge in what will ultimately become Israel. Johnny represents the numerous “good Germans” who may have escaped the sting of Nuremberg, but who now must live with a perpetually guilty conscious for their spineless inactivity and utter lack of conviction during the time when it mattered most.
As for Nelly, she most closely represents the identities of Jewish survivors of Auschwitz and other camps – brutally scarred and traumatized, stumbling idly without purpose or direction, unsure of who to believe and what exact identity to inhabit. The question of how Jews are supposed to reconcile prewar and postwar identities in Germany closely parallels Phoenix’s scenes of Johnny instructing the person he believes to be the false Nelly to behave in a manner more akin to the real, “authentic” Nelly when, of course, it has actually been the same person all along. But beyond its function as a simple (loose use of the word) fable for contested Jewish identity, Phoenix is most effective as a stark lesson in the devastating psychological effects of brutality and victimhood. Nelly is not a naïve or simplistic character, but one whose extreme psychological and physical damage has rendered her unable to distinguish between good and evil, pain and pleasure, and even love and hate. The one thing she is left longing for is also the one thing she cannot have – her old identity, one that was blissfully free of the grave consequences which emerge as a byproduct of a rising moral consciousness.
Rating: 3.5 stars