They face each other. Two ghosts. World War II has recently ended; Berlin is in ruins. Nelly (the glorious Nina Hoss) has survived Auschwitz. Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) is her husband. Both have been living in a state of denial, until this confrontation, when they will suddenly see things very clearly and their masks will drop and shatter forever.
In the final moments of Christian Petzold’s riveting, classy postwar melodrama, Phoenix, we hear Nelly sing ‘Speak Low,’ the beautiful 1943 love song written by Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash, which has played several times throughout the course of the film. It’s an emotional touchstone. Before the war, Nelly was a singer; this song is a reminder of her past, of Johnny, of her love for him and their life together. But now, things are quite different. As in the song’s melancholy lyrics, everything is now too late – a curtain is descending upon them. It is the end.
It began 90 minutes earlier with Nelly’s return to Berlin, under the care of her friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf). Her face was heavily bandaged – she survived the death camp, but a bullet shattered her face. Surgery remakes her; she takes the name Esther. But she is irrevocably changed, physically and psychologically. A faceless, nameless shell. Throughout the course of Petzold’s film, she begins to take form again.
Standing beside Johnny at the piano in the film’s finale, Nelly’s transformation is complete. They are in a restaurant with some of their old friends, participating in a deception of Johnny’s making. Weeks before, when she arrived in Berlin, she tracked him down – her love for him the only thing she recognised of her old life. She introduced herself as Esther. He sees a slight resemblance to his wife, who he believes dead. Johnny sees a chance to claim his dead wife’s inheritance (she is the only surviving member of her family). He asks Esther/Nelly to move into his basement and rehearse being more like Nelly, which unknown to him, she is. It’s a tangled web and Petzold lets its threads unravel slowly. Along the way, Nelly discovers that Johnny betrayed her to the Nazis and divorced her before her arrest. With this knowledge and a broken heart, she takes the upper hand.
If it sounds confusing (and to some, even far-fetched), that’s because Phoenix is a film about identity in crisis. Many critics have asked whether it’s plausible that Johnny doesn’t recognise Nelly? I wonder what the point of this line of questioning is. I’m not convinced that Petzold is saying that he doesn’t. Johnny is myopic; he sees only what he wants to, what suits his purpose, his version of history. Petzold uses him to interrogate the very concept of knowledge. Zerhfeld, skillfully, provides flickers of recognition that are quickly buried. He is an actor whose warm eyes draw us to his side, only to be pushed away as the case against him mounts. To acknowledge that Nelly lives, is to acknowledge his role in her history; to unveil his guilt. To believe it is true, that she is here, that she survived, would not only implicate him in her horror but require admission of the horror itself.
Even more than an allegory of the postwar German identity, Phoenix is about the consequences of forgetting on national and individual identity. In the years immediately after the war, Germany experienced denial at a mass, societal level; a sort of collective forgetting and obliteration. Petzold shows us Berlin rebuilding (restoration as an act that entombs reality) and cabarets entertaining GIs with American songs, while Germans stumble, shell-shocked, through the rubble of their destroyed city. The world is broken. People are broken. Life, after war, does not simply return to normal.
Nelly has a desperate need to be remembered and to be seen as she truly is. It’s what fuels, in part, her decision to go along with Johnny’s plan. In a purely historical context, we might see Nelly and Johnny’s story as a parable for the stories that people – and indeed nations – tell themselves and what has to be forgotten, in order to step out of the past and move forward. Or perhaps, more accurately, the film is an expression of the idea that we must often tell ourselves lies in order to live, without disavowing the damage these lies wreak.
As a Holocaust survivor, Nelly has suffered a fundamental betrayal. What does it take to rise up out of this? Petzold gives us a domestic drama, between husband and wife, which is a drama between gentile and Jew, standing in for the drama of the nation as a whole. Nelly’s scars are no less than the scars of German history itself. Hers are the unspeakable wounds of the ultimate betrayal of a country against its own people – German Jews who saw themselves as Germans first and could never have envisioned what Hitler had planned for them.
The camps destroyed people, even when they survived them, not all scars visible or operable. Nelly’s face is recreated, but other wounds will need considerably longer to heal. As Bernard Schlink has argued in relation to the atrocities of the Third Reich, guilt about the past attaches to an entire society and “even after the era is past, it casts a long shadow over the present, infecting later generations with a sense of guilt, responsibility and self-questioning” (Guilt about the Past, 2009, 1).
It’s a guilt that plays out in Petzold’s film and even in the process of directing. He has spoken of the difficulty in approaching any representation of the Holocaust – how to acknowledge the past, while conceding that any act of remembrance is empty by its very nature. Petzold originally shot a scene to open Phoenix that attempted to come to grips with its horrors in a more direct way – Nelly the only survivor, rising from a field of dead bodies after a death march – but made the decision to cut it from the final film and begin with Nelly’s return to Berlin. As Petzold explains, “when I shot it, I felt embarrassed, ashamed, because I had done the same thing that all the other Holocaust movies do. They think they can make pictures of the Holocaust, and that’s not possible.”
It’s a difficult and complex visual dynamic and Petzold admits there are no easy, or correct answers. That Petzold chooses not to imagine the Holocaust doesn’t diminish Nelly’s trauma in any way. Rather, here it is heightened through its invisibility, complementing the film’s overall premise that neither Nelly nor Johnny wants to face the truth, and only can accept it once it confronts them. Despite warnings from Lene, Nelly holds onto her desire to find Johnny and resume her old life. For a long time she refuses to acknowledge his betrayal, although we can see (translated across Hoss’s tremendous, expressive face) her looking, waiting, hopefully, for Johnny to see her, to recognise her.
But Nelly is a stranger – to herself and to others. She pleads with the surgeon to make her look like she did. But he can’t. Maybe he won’t. As he says, “a new face is an advantage,” perhaps the only way to move forward through this new landscape. But for Nelly, this refashioning of her face is a further obliteration, forcing her to conclude, “I no longer exist.” When she sees her face in shattered glass, it’s in fragments, unrecognisable. It’s her need to feel whole, like her old self, which draws her back to Johnny. As she tells Lene, Johnny has made her back into Nelly again, “I’m myself again.”
Johnny hasn’t forgotten; he refuses to see. Johnny is no different to the rest of the society around him. He is implicated in their collective blindness, telling Nelly that people don’t want to see the survivors, don’t want to hear their stories. As he reminds her, while helping her perfect her hair and makeup, “They want to see Nelly, not a ragged camp-internee.” Johnny’s an example of the new German, who believes he can exchange his guilt for money, who thinks he can jump over the abyss of the Holocaust and thereby simply erase it. But as Petzold told Sight & Sound (June 2015) earlier this year, this belief is an illusion; it cannot be made to simply disappear.
In the ending is Nelly’s beginning. It’s a moment in which her true self is revealed – without flourish, or exposition, but with a torch song and a tattoo.
As Johnny plays the opening bars of ‘Speak Low’ we see each is nervous. He’s anxious that her ‘bad’ singing will reveal her to be an imposter (after all, she is not really his wife, so she’s not really a singer). For Nelly, there is some other stress at work. It’s here that Hoss discharges her significant talent. At first uncertain, her singing is weak and shaky, unprofessional. But then, an intake of breath, and her voice becomes her own, rich and fluid. Nelly’s eyes widen and her spine stiffens, her gaze meets Johnny’s. She unnerves him and forces him to look away, to look down to her outstretched arm and the prisoner serial number etched crudely into her flesh.
Here is the only truth that matters, the visible proof of horror, inked in black on white. This cannot be ignored. Nelly’s revelation is quick and sharp like a big knife plunged deep into Johnny’s cold heart. The performance of reconciliation comes unstuck. Johnny’s fingers stop playing. He’s speechless as she continues to sing, soaring with bravado. Nelly has undergone multiple processes of transformation since embracing Johnny’s chance to become herself again. But they have come at a cost. Seeing herself through his eyes means invisibility, denial, death. To redeem herself as solid and living, she must coerce him to really look and see her. And when he does – he sees her history, her suffering, all marked on her body. And he sees his own guilt.
There is another truth – what has been lost can’t be regained. There’s no going back, and going forward will be difficult. It’s an overwhelming discovery. But now Nelly turns from Johnny and walks away – out of the inferno of the Holocaust, reborn.