The danger with allegories, especially historical allegories, is that they can subsume the story with which they’re spun. To defend against this, it’s not enough to offer some telling details, which ultimately only hints at an underlying specificity; such an allegory has to string together coherent narratives in two distinct registers at once in a high-strung balancing act. Phoenix (2014) manages this remarkable feat, and both narratives are outstanding to boot.
In Berlin just after WWII, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) brings Nelly (Nina Hoss) back from the newly liberated Auschwitz, where among other cruelties her face was disfigured. A singer of some renown, she wants her old life back, especially her loving pianist husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), but her new face is the first sign that it’s not to be. As Lene tries to persuade her to move to Palestine, Nelly seeks out Johnny in an American-sector club called the Phoenix, only to find that he doesn’t recognize her. Instead, he assumes that she wants work and ropes her into a scheme to masquerade as Nelly “returning” from Auschwitz in order to gain his (he thinks) dead wife’s inheritance. Pining for her identity and husband, she agrees—even though Lene tells her that he’s the one who betrayed her to the Nazis.
The premise isn’t as implausible as it first seems. Hoss convincingly plays a woman triply traumatized, and then traumatized again: in the loss of her old life, in the concentration camp, and in an unrecognizable new world with a new face, before finding herself in the grips of the unsalvageable remnants of her old life. She’s sunk so deep into her trauma that she has to drag herself out of her slump to answer the simplest question, and her movements and gait are stiff and unsure. Add in a presumed bodily change due to her treatment in Auschwitz, and it’s not impossible that her erstwhile husband doesn’t recognize her, convinced as he is that she’s dead. As Nelly gradually “picks up” her old habits, handwriting, attire, and hair-and-makeup visage, it becomes clear that Johnny actively refuses to see her as his returned wife because of how painful it’d be to face his actions. And Nelly acquiesces in hopes that her orchestrated “return” will engender a genuine return to his good graces and their old life. She doesn’t believe that he betrayed her, or betrayed her willingly. He remembers so much about her in such loving memory.
This is postwar Germany in microcosm. The thing about occupation and collaboration is that collaborators, by definition, are people who know the people the regime wants information on; they’re part of the community. The perpetual state of fear this causes helps the regime maintain power, but after occupation ends the paranoia carries over to reintegration. The closer someone’s connection to you, the more they know about you, and the likelier it is that they’re the ones who betrayed you, your family, or your friends. And yet, as members of the same community, or even the same family, you share memories with them both personal and communal. Moreover, in the chaos of regime change, weak institutions of justice can seduce formerly upright citizens into shady deals and semi-legal profiteering. What writer-director Christian Petzold and writer Harun Farocki have ingeniously done is to combine these two postwar archetypal situations with the glue of this particular couple’s story.
Throughout the film’s 98-minute running time, the drama of Nelly viewing her old life through a glass darkly (and through the shadows artfully rendered by cinematographer Hans Fromm) is in tension with the whodunit aspect of whether Johnny really did it. The meat of the drama lies in the fantastical conceit of viewing one’s life after one has left it, of being able to glimpse the impact one has had on those around one. But each scene where Nelly is faced with traces of her old self and evidence of Johnny’s loving attention is watered down by the distraction of whether this detail is the one that’ll open his eyes, whether the person who remembers even this about her could really have betrayed her. As the details accumulate and Johnny and Nelly start to rehearse their “reunion,” this tension grows ever stronger—and it’s released in a surprising way.
Nelly returns to the apartment she shares with Lene to find her gone; the housekeeper (Imogen Kogge) says that she shot herself. Evidently, Lene’s calm—too calm—comportment belied an interior in tumult, traumatized by the particular Jewish consciousness of the Shoah. Not all victims of trauma, the film is saying, look like Nelly. Lene leaves behind the evidence cementing her belief in Johnny’s betrayal: He divorced Nelly the day before her arrest. (Plot hole: How, then, would he have gotten her money?) Nelly doesn’t confront him with this fact, and we viewers, living in our post-truth era, wouldn’t’ve expected that to work anyway. Instead, she goes through with the plan, and the stony countenance with which she faces the “friends” Johnny enlists to greet her “return” suggests a newfound resolve.
There’s a tonal shift here, implied by but not a consequence of Lene’s suicide, that’s so subtle and nuanced that I only picked up on it in retrospect. At this point in the plot Nelly has already decided to reveal the truth to Johnny, and perhaps even decided how. After the group has sat down to drink and perfunctorily chat, Nelly leads them to a room with a piano. She offers to sing if Johnny plays; you can see the perplexity on his face as he begins. She starts low and raspy, and we’re worried that she’d lost her singing voice in Auschwitz. But then, with one long, powerful note, she barrels into the refrain and pulls up her sleeves, and Johnny sees the prisoner number tattooed on her forearm, and he knows. Dumbfounded, he stops playing, but like a phoenix risen from the ashes, Nelly sings on, carrying with her sublime voice the hopes and prospects of a newly liberated Germany, a Germany that has weathered the war, will survive the blockade and the Soviets, and will continue persevering until it can finally rest and, reflecting back, reckon with its sordid Nazi legacy.
Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large.