Wartime search for identity

Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Hoss star in Phoenix

FILM REVIEW of Phoenix by Don Perlgut — The German drama Phoenix, set in immediate postwar Berlin, raises important questions of personal identity, collaboration and betrayal.

German-Jewish Holocaust survivor and former nightclub singer Nelly (Nina Hoss) has been horribly disfigured. With the assistance of Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a fellow survivor who works for the Jewish Agency, she starts to recover her life, first by taking the opportunity to reconstruct her face.

Despite the horrors that Nelly went through, all she wants to do is to pick up the pieces – her request to the facial surgeon is “to look exactly like I used to”.

The result is a new face, along with the possibility of a new life, allowing Nelly to pass unnoticed among those she once knew.

Despite Lene’s objections, Nelly wants to find her non-Jewish husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), even though it may have been him who turned her into the Nazis.

Wandering around the ruins of Berlin, she finds her way to the Phoenix nightclub (the double-entendre of rising from the ashes is intentional).

And yes, there’s Johnny, a sleazy survivor ever “on the make”, who does not recognise Nelly but sees enough of a similarity with his presumed dead wife to hatch a plan so that he can obtain her money.

To appreciate Phoenix, you must set aside the implausibility of Johnny’s incomprehension that this woman is his wife.

In a huge act of emotional subjugation with its horrifying psychological implications, Nelly goes along with the plan, believing that this is the way to regain her life and identity, going so far as taking Johnny’s instructions as how to act like Nelly and helping to create a back story for the “fake” Nelly.

Here Phoenix contains strong parallels to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic drama Vertigo (1958), with its psychological melodrama of masquerade and double identities.

Viewers with sharp memories may recall that this story has been told on film before, in the 1965 British film Return from the Ashes, written by Julius Epstein (Casablanca).

Christian Petzold directs Phoenix with great visual flair that has made it a darling of film critics. Despite this acclaim, Phoenix contains elements that Jewish audiences may find uncomfortable, including depressive Jewish characters in a bleak, postwar landscape.

Unlike the triumphalism of films such as Exodus, Zionism seems to offer these survivors little or no hope for the future.

Ultimately, Phoenix reveals more about the concerns of postwar Germany than it does about the Holocaust.

Phoenix is currently screening.