Phoenix tells the story of Nelly who is freed from Auschwitz. As a demolished survivor with wounds on her face, she goes out of the hospital after an aesthetic surgery with bandages and starts looking for his husband. The loss and the recovery of identity after the camp start with the physical transformation. She is a singer, sadly we can only hear her singing towards the end. Her husband is a pianist. There’s a catch though about the whole capturing event. Did he run away and leave her? Both she and we are not sure. Nelly takes her time to find him and to find out.
She strolls in the dark ruined streets, tries bar-crawling in order to find him. Meanwhile, the woman who is helping her to run away is planning to migrate to Israel, she tries to persuade her too about the exodus. Unlike Nelly, who is still unable to process the horror, Lene is full of resentment about how the history unfolds after the camps, particularly about how Jews forgive all the perpetrators. The focus of Phoenix reminded me of the book I’ve read in Turkish which was also referenced a lot in the other texts, but I couldn’t find an exact English translation online, maybe the essays are translated and published in a different structure, as in At the Mind’s Limits. Jean Améry’s essay collection “Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne” was dealing with the survivors’, particularly intellectuals’, existence after the camps. It’s a hard and heavy topic for me to write about in a film-note-blog-post, so I’d better switch back to the film. It seems like, erstwhile, Améry launched the final scene.
“Für […] mich heißt Jude sein die Tragödie von gestern in sich lasten spüren. Ich trage auf meinem linken Unterarm die Auschwitz-Nummer; die liest sich kürzer als der Pentateuch oder der Talmud und gibt doch gründlicher Auskunft.”
If we go back to Nelly, after a short pursuit, she encounters her husband in a bar called Phoenix -reborn with a red dress- but he does not recognize her. Instead, he offers her a deal to act as if she is her wife to possess her inheritance. The second tier of the drama begins here. As Nelly is drawn together to her husband as a role-playing stranger, some archetypical narratives unfold. Johnny teaches her how to walk, what to wear, how to greet her friends after the comeback. She yields. Despite the despair, she values the joy of re-encountering with the loved one. It feels like a repetition of the first encounter with the lover.
The theme of the man forming the woman towards a desired object/subject traces back to Pygmalion and its variations. Vertigo, the film noirs, and the Frankenstein story can be counted as side-references. The director mentions the Frankenstein relation in one of his interviews, but I honestly don’t buy it, I don’t think there is enough ground for the convergence to that story, a hidden attic does not give enough material. Nina Hoss walking in the night like a vampire was another conceptualization by Petzold about the vampire stories which I didn’t really think of while watching the film. Another, maybe the last remark from the director was the actress Nina Hoss’ comments about him -as a director- following a similar path like the protagonist when it comes to director shaping the actress. Petzold is well known for his films with female protagonists but the distance between him and a woman filmmaker also lay on a great deal about the gaze and the intimacy of the director, storytelling, and the acting.
In many of Petzold’s films, I encounter a couple of scenes that I admire. In this one, the finale was exquisite with Nelly unexpectedly singing a song that proves her identity and epitomizes the whole ambivalence in the film.