A Berlin Horror Story

Catherine Ellsberg ’16
Staff Writer

The recently released German film “Phoenix” is so sleekly paced, well-tuned and meticulously arranged that one could easily imagine it in the form of a one-act play or a slim novella. Director Christian Petzold (of Barbara fame) has crafted a WWII-era narrative that emerges gracefully from the Holocaust film genre, sweeping any aspects of sentimentality or melodrama under the rug.
“Phoenix” stars Petzold’s muse, Nina Hoss, as Nelly, a Jewish singer who has just returned from the concentration camps. The immediate post-war Berlin, devastated and burnt, lends itself perfectly to the setting of the film, serving as a kind of corollary to the crumbling mental landscape of the protagonist. Nelly has just undergone reconstructive facial surgery after nearly dying from a bullet wound; we are told that she is now unrecognizable. Recuperating with an old friend, Lene (Nina Kundzendorf), Nelly is eager to find her gentile musician husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) who, Lene leads us to believe, surely betrayed his own wife to the Nazis.
In a kind of magical discovery, that keeps with a fairy tale (or, in this case, a horror story), Nelly discovers Johnny working in a nightclub. In one of the cruelest, most Kafkaesque scenes ever filmed, Johnny pulls Nelly aside and persuades her to act as his wife who was supposedly killed in the camps: a tidy sum is involved if she can pull off the act and claim the money she is owed as a survivor. Shockingly, Nelly agrees, concealing her identity.
Constant ambiguity strengthens “Phoenix”: does Johnny truly not know his estranged wife? Or, does he indeed recognize her and her idiosyncrasies, her walk, her voice, but guilt paralyzes him? The rest of the film simultaneously enchants as it revolts, as we watch Nelly undergo test after test to prove that she can morph into Johnny’s wife. It speaks to the greatness of Hoss’ performance that, even as Nelly walks and talks among the living, the specter of her former self hovers close by, threatening to shatter the absurd, staged illusion the husband and wife have been duplicitously constructed.
Petzold deftly navigates these sooty Berlin streets, where average Germans are eager to anticipate a bright future rather than relive the horrific past that looms over each and every moment. While most films dealing with the Holocaust plunge us right into the terror of the camps, “Phoenix” settles in the aftermath and reminds us of the disturbing reality that people like Johnny had to experience, and that survivors were not given the space to recover in the immediate post-war years. Somehow, the film manages to simultaneously capture this forgotten truth — that life after the war was a different sort of hell for the victims — while also maintaining a theodicy. In this way, “Phoenix” towers over the lesser “Life is Beautiful,” which similarly funnels the complexities of the Holocaust into a morality tale.

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