Further thoughts on Phoenix (Germany 2014)

A move towards expressionism?  Christian Petzold's 'Yella' (2014)

A move towards expressionism? Christian Petzold’s ‘Phoenix’ (2014)

Christian Petzold is no stranger to dealing with the idea of ghosts. Even though this film differs significantly from his earliest films, and forms part of the recent ones which have dealt with aspects of Germany history very much in the vein of the vergangenheitsbewaltigung tradition, there are resonances with his Ghost trilogy which gained him such International visibility as one of the Berlin School of filmmakers. These were directors, such as Petzold, Christoph Hochhäusler (Unter dir die Städt reviewed here), Thomas Arslan (an interview from 2011 here) and Angela Schanelec ( a trailer for Orly (2011) here). A disparate group but who all looked forward towards and at a modern Germany and the challenges faced in the new constitution of Europe. Thus, the first feature in the trilogy Die Innere Sicherheit (The State I’m In) dealt with what life was like as the daughter of two ex-terrorists (implicitly from something like the Red Army Faction) constantly on the run and never allowed to settle or make relationships. Similarly, Gespenster (Ghosts) cast Julia Hummer as a young, rootless girl trying to survive in Berlin. In Yella, Nina Hoss gives an eerie performance as a woman trying to move from the economically-deprived East to the more affluent West. Without giving any of the details of these plots away, Petzold’s characters definitively experience what it is like to be ghosts within the new economic Europe and to be a shadow within your own life. Watching Hoss play the role of Nelly in Phoenix, returning to her old life from the camps, was a further revelation of this theme with melodramatic intensity. Nelly is a ghost in her own life, unrecognised by her own husband and forced to act as her own doppelganger. All the unsettling, psychological associations having a double are at play here as in other such narratives and a scene in the hospital where Nelly is undergoing facial surgery made direct visual reference to it. Whilst Nelly as a shadow is a cultural metaphor, Hoss captures the emotional fragility so naturalistically that her performance protects the film from being schematic or overly symbolic. It works, as Keith and Roy have said, perfectly on a thematic level. It expresses exactly what might have been the emotional dislocation of returning from such an experience to attempt to take up your old life and relationships. And that the ending works is testament to the emotional conviction in the playing – from Hoss and Zehrfeld but, importantly, also from Nina Kunzendorf who offered such a convincing protective warmth and love – and a different response to circumstances – as Nelly’s devoted Jewish friend. The ending of the film, as Keith and Roy say, is incredibly moving, retaining an emotional ambiguity whilst being so satisfying. It generally reached back, for me, to Fassbinder in a way I haven’t know Petzold do so much before especially the post-war relationship in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979).  Weren’t the nightclub scenes quite parodic – with an uncomfortable sense of victors moving in to take the place of Nazis? 

Some reviews have talked about Petzold employing naturalism. I tend not to agree. Petzold uses his landscapes and his characters to create parables and to explore moral issues quite overtly and schematically. His style is better described as restrained and resists visual or aural excess but it does not lack elements of fantasy or melodrama. He often relies on the controlled intensity of actors such as Hoss or underplaying in performance in very extreme, narrative circumstances (as happens in Barbara (2012) or Jerichow (2008)). Part of what is fascinating about his work for me is this exploration of how to marry these disparate kinds of styles of expression. His collaboration with Harun Farocki – the great social documentarian – goes back to his film school days where Farocki taught him. Farocki was an inspirational documentarian on social issues as they related to the modern economic world. In returning to themes of the post-war era, crafting what some see as very conventional dramas for an international market (and therefore see Petzold as reneging on some of his principles) do these two collaborators suggest there is unfinished business there that can no longer be resisted?


  1. keith1942

    Very good Rona. I like the idea of ‘ghosts’ and shadows’. And you are right about the Fassbinder connection and the non-realist form.
    I have not seen the earliest film that you refer to but I definitely hope to.


  2. shabanah fazal

    I can’t resist some further, further thoughts on ‘Phoenix’ as it’s so stunning– the best German film I’ve seen since ‘The Lives of Others’. It has a rare artistic unity, with not one superfluous word or image in an unbearably tense, taut narrative held together by one idea: Nelly’s determined belief in German husband Johnny as essential to her identity. Christian Petzold pushes that idea as far as he can without it breaking. Once you accept the central conceit, the film runs on its own inexorable internal logic. It’s richly complex but I read it above all as a story of love’s illusions, which the music comments on movingly and ironically by ‘speaking low’ the feelings that the traumatised characters cannot, weaving Kurt Weill’s signature music in and out of the film both diegetically and non-diegetically. Those illusions are Nelly’s love for Johnny, Jews for Germany and also Lene’s for Nelly (I agree with Keith). Arguably, hers is the more tragic love since unlike Nelly, she is aware of those illusions yet could perhaps offer Nelly something truer.

    I also agree with Rhona that the nightclub scenes show ‘the victors moving in to take the place of the Nazis’. Here ‘Speak Low’ is picked up in a brasher, jazzier vein by an American style swing band and burlesque act performing Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day’ – reminders of the loss of German cultural identity. This sequence rewards close attention, because the bitter-sweet lyrics ironically match the unfolding narrative and foreshadow the shattering of Nelly’s obsessive, illusory love: ‘Of my hopes you’re the mirage’, as an unseeing Johnny looks at her, but through her. The singers too continue the film’s doppelgänger motif, with their contrasting black /white outfits and bare backs with great symbolic eyes, signifying the idea of divided selves and looking but not seeing: Nelly/Esther and Johnny /Johannes are each locked in their own deceptions. In a film full of performance, the burlesque act seems a bitter mockery of Nelly’s devotion to Johnny. The dark, artificial glamour of their make -up and outfits also recalls the decadence of Weimar Germany; this iconography, combined with the post-war music of the occupier, perhaps signifies that the love Nelly had for both Johnny and Germany was always doomed.

    In his review, Roy mentions the ‘rich reds standing out against the rubble’. I noted these more on my second viewing, as I started to think about Lene’s role in the film. Her love story can be seen as a foil to the main one, and is the story of a love that cannot – or maybe dare not – speak its name (Lene’s short hair, trousers and other ‘lesbian’ signifiers?). In the scene where the two dine alone, there’s a possible subtext in the foregrounding of Lene’s intensely red blouse against inexpressive grey walls; it seems to speak her secret desire for Nelly, just as in turn her red dress will for Johnny. That same sensual longing for an unattainable love is also expressed potently by the melancholy clarinet playing on the gramophone in Nelly’s theme song ‘Speak Low’. Lene used to sleep to it in London and longs to hear it again, but it is Johnny – not Lene- who will get to hear it once more as a love song.

    I wouldn’t want to entirely separate this feeling of Lene’s from her solidarity with Nelly as a fellow Jew and war survivor. The two come together powerfully when we hear her last letter to Nelly, in which she speaks of having no way back, but ‘no way forward either’, over the spare strains of a double bass playing ‘Speak Low’ as Nelly rides away in gathering darkness with Johnny on his bike. This surely underlines how Lene’s own illusions of love are shattered by Nelly’s refusal to see the truth about Johnny and German betrayal of Jews. (It’s no accident that Lene dislikes the idea of Nelly’s ‘reconstruction’ of her face to win back Johnny and her German identity, preferring the word ‘recreation’ – a future with her in the new state of Israel.) I think she feels betrayed not just as a Jew but as a woman in love: her finally facing the truth that Nelly could never love her over Johnny was the only way I could make sense of why such an apparently tough, assertive character who’d planned carefully for a new non-German life and identity would suddenly destroy herself. And that of course is the trigger for her revealing the document that finally makes Nelly confront her own love illusion…

    The film’s restrained aesthetic speaks ‘low’ throughout, deliberately building slowly to intensify the exquisitely moving ending. When Nelly finally stops deceiving herself, she loses Johnny but finds her own voice, which rises phoenix-like from the smouldering ashes of her desire, signified by her red dress. Given the delicacy of the moment, I did wonder though whether the dress design (look closely to see a parallel with the ‘Night and Day’ performance) went a touch too far? Or was it an example of misjudged wit, that worked the first time, but not the second? And though the ending was near perfection, I also loved the reminder in the final frames of Nelly’s choice of model for her new face: Hedy Lamarr. As a Hollywood star in public, but exiled Jew and secret inventor in private, she too had a divided self – but the image for me hinted at the possibility for Nelly not of ghostly death but of a beautifully clever self-reinvention.

    Liked by 1 person

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