PHOENIX. Germany, 2014. Starring Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf. Directed by Christian Petzold. 98 minutes. Rated M (no consumer advice supplied).
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.
Madman Released December 3rd
Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.