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Phoenix

Germany 1945/46. Holocaust survivor Nelly returns heavily disfigured to Berlin and searches for her husband Johnny. When she finds him Johnny doesn’t recognize her but he proposes a deal. Nelly is to pretend that she is his wife so that they can ...

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Christian Petzold’s latest film PHOENIX is set in Berlin directly after the Second World War. Jewish Agency employee Lene helps her friend Nelly, an Auschwitz survivor, readjust to a new life. Lene finds Nelly a plastic surgeon to operate on her disfigured face, finds them an apartment and helps Nelly claim her inheritance after it is clear that she is the only surviving member of her family. Nelly asks about her husband, but Lene thinks he betrayed Nelly to the Nazis and refuses to talk about him. For Lene the future is in Palestine not in Germany.

Christian Petzold presents Nelly as a woman slowly finding her way back to life and also as someone who desperately wants everything to be as it was before. As soon as she can walk again she goes looking for her husband in the nightclubs of the war-ravaged city. She finds Johnny in an American club working as waiter but he doesn’t recognize her. He does however tell her that she bears a striking resemblance to his dead wife and proposes a deal: the post-war Nelly will impersonate the pre-war Nelly and claim her inheritance which they will in turn split. With Johnny the new Nelly pretends to write like the old Nelly, walk like the old Nelly and look like the old Nelly. Yet no matter how obvious it is that she is Nelly, Johnny doesn’t recognize her.

PHOENIX is an attempt to make a movie that fits into the genre of German postwar filmmaking. Petzold’s film is old-fashioned, metaphorical cinema. The opening scenes in which Nelly is walking through the hospital with her face bandaged recall Georges Franju’s classic LES YEUX SANS VISAGE. Hitchcock is also never too far away. A man and woman don’t recognize each other because ultimately they don’t want to know each other. Because the truth –if one were to look at it straight in the eye– would have the power to change and destroy everything. Nelly would have to give up her love and Johnny his comfortable life as an opportunist. This, however, is the weak point in Petzold’s film – that Johnny actually doesn’t recognize Nelly seems highly unlikely. The story Petzold tells only works if the viewer accepts that Johnny doesn’t recognize Nelly, in other words if the viewer doesn’t buy the main premise then the film may not work.

Hendrike Bake

Credits

Deutschland 2014, 98 min
Language: German
Genre: Drama
Director: Christian Petzold
Author: Christian Petzold
DOP: Hans Fromm
Distributor: Piffl Medien GmbH
Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Michael Maertens
FSK: 12
Release: 25.09.2014

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