The best thing about Phoenix, the latest film from German director Christian Petzold, is that the ending is perfect, absolutely perfect. Not only does it wrap the post-WWII story up neatly, it hits you with a punch of emotion so strong you’ll be teary-eyed and breathless as the credits roll in dead silence. The hero, a Jewish-German woman adjusting to life after Auschwitz, achieves a strange type of triumph even as she realizes the horror of her situation. Her country is shattered, her relatives are all dead, and she doesn’t know who she can ever trust. To survive, she has but one choice: to figure out who she is now that the horror of war is over.
This process of rising from the ashes starts as the woman, a former jazz singer named Nelly (Nina Hoss), returns to Germany under the care of Lene (Nina Kunzendorf). The latter looks after Nelly, whose face was shattered in the concentration camp, and takes her to a plastic surgeon. The doctor promises to make Nelly look like any celebrity she wants, but Nelly’s response is swift. “I want to look exactly like I did before.” The scene is one of several that hint at the particular kind of loss some in Germany must have felt following WWII. Even though their country had given rise to Hitler and the Third Reich, these Germans still longed for a sense of home, to sing German songs, and for things to be as they once were. For Nelly, this manifests chiefly in a desire to find her husband, a pianist named Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld).
When she does find him, in a nightclub named Phoenix, Lene is not happy about it. At first, it’s not totally clear why. Petzold likes to keep you in the dark a bit, forcing you question the way characters feel toward others. This imbues every shadowy glance and look with the possibility of meaning. Still, Lene’s apprehension towards Johnny stems from her belief that he betrayed Nelly to the SS, and so she urges Nelly to leave Germany and go with her to Palestine. But not believing her husband could have done something so heinous, Nelly gravitates toward Johnny in an effort to regain her former life. And this is, in a sense, what the film is all about. Nelly is searching for her life, but it’s not clear she can find truly it.
When Nelly reaches out to Johnny, he doesn’t recognize his wife’s new face. However, he tells her that she sort of looks like his wife and hatches a scheme to get Nelly’s sizable inheritance. In the process, Johnny unknowingly gets Nelly to pretend she’s his wife. It’s an absurd situation, because, of course, this woman actually was his wife, and the only thing Nelly wants is for her husband to see that. But Johnny doesn’t. To him, she’s dead, long gone. He dresses Nelly up in her old clothes and he even makes her practice her own handwriting. On the one hand, the exercises seem to help Nelly reclaim a sense of self, to feel the comfort of the pre-war days, and yet the whole dynamic appears incredibly unhealthy and doomed to disaster. It should be said that the emotional complexity of the situation is handled brilliantly by Petzold, who gets masterful performances from both Hoss and Zehrfeld.
Thematically, Phoenix asks all sorts of questions about rebirth. Is it possible, for instance, to be who you once were after experiencing something like the Holocaust? Is one able to choose one’s destiny after being victimized to such a degree? These are tough, uncomfortable questions, yet Hoss’ character is someone who we can root for. Nelly is a survivor, and it’s in those moments when she’s able to find herself, to take ownership of what is hers, to lift her voice, that the film burns with hope — perhaps not of rebirth, but of the value in life itself. And the music — I didn’t even touch on the music yet! The songs selected and performed, like the old jazz tune “Speak Low,” are much like the ending: absolutely perfect.
Phoenix opens Friday at the Edina Cinema.