Christian Petzold's 'Phoenix' is a Deeply Moving Film About Survivors Rebuilding Their Lives

“Speak low, darling speak low”, the Kurt Weill/ Ogden Nash song as sung first by himself and finally by Nelly, the protagonist of this film, played by Nina Hoss, is the thematic refrain that weaves through this deeply moving movie entitled “Phoenix”.

Kurt Weill sings “Speak Low” from 1948’s “One Touch of Venus” by Odgen Nash and S.J. Perelman starring Ava Gardne.

Arising from the ashes of Auschwitz and Berlin, a ghost of a woman returns to claim her inheritance and her husband if he is still alive. Aided by Lene, a Jewish attorney and c a kindred spirit from her past, who escaped the Shoah by fleeing to London and Nelly who experienced it to the farthest reaches of horror, together might start anew in Israel; Lene has already found the apartment for them there.

Nelly’s face, destroyed and then reconstructed after she was shot and left for dead, makes her unrecognizable. She seeks and finds her husband who tries to make this woman into the Nelly he knew. She knows but he does not. A fleeting reminiscence of Almodovar’s movie here, “ The Skin I Live In ” where a renowned plastic surgeon reconstructs the face of his wife upon someone he has abducted, so Johnny tries to remake his wife but holds back his near falling in love with what he believes to be his own creation.

This film is rife with references. If you recall “One Touch of Venus” whence cometh this Kurt Weill song, the statue of Venus comes alive when kissed. In “Phoenix” as well, the Jewish former cabaret singer returns to life when she finds the beloved husband she left behind but remembered every day as her reason for living through the camps.

However, his kiss is a Judas kiss as this dark story unfolds to the point where she sings “Speak low”. This is a complex, Hitchcockian tale of a nation’s tragedy and a woman’s search for answers which builds toward an unforgettable, heart-stopping climax. Again a reference, this time to “ Vertigo” where the switching of women strikes a chord.

See Nina Hoss singing here .

The classic, 2014 Academy Award winning “Ida” by Pawel Pawlikowski’s also pairs two women together in their search for post-war answers in Poland. Ida finds her own way as her aunt – and Lene as well – in Lene’s words “feel more drawn to our dead than to the living.”

For all these points of reference and comparison which came to my mind as I watched “Phoenix” with bated breath, this film is unique in expressing how these survivors attempt to rebuild their lives which have been horribly broken by death, suffering and loss.

Christian Petzold directed Nina Hoss previously in “Barbara” and “Jerichow” along with her screen-husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) a gorgeous actor able to charm and curse simultaneously. We hate him but we also love him. Ronald Zehrfeld says, “…when Johnny sees Nelly in front of him, you think, Ok, now he has to recognize her! But either he doesn’t trust his feelings or doesn’t allow himself to feel these emotions. Because ‘It’s impossible! She’s dead! And I won’t allow myself to fee this because my future depends on me passing her off as my wife. ‘ For him, it’s clear that, if he ever wants to breathe again, feel himself again or make music again, then he has to get out of Germany. And that’s possible only with Nell’s help – with the help of Nelly’s imposter, as he sees her. And on the other hand there are his feelings of guilt ….”

The rapport of the director with his actors is apparent in the patient unfolding of both characters with their traumas, their hopes, their guilt as they try to process the horrors they have survived.

Nina plays a woman who is vulnerable and fragile at the same time as she is defiant and stubborn. In the throes still of trauma of surviving the concentration camp and being shot in the face which must be reconstructed, without a vocabulary to describe all she has experienced, she seeks her husband in the burnt-out city of Berlin. She feels that only he can bring her back to life. In her search to find him, she finds herself again and tells her only friend Lene, ‘Johnny made me back into Nelly. Sometimes I get really jealous of myself – of how happy I was.

Interview with Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss by Nikolay Nikitin, hosted by the Goethe Institut in Toronto during its international debut at Tiff 2014 is here.

Aside from “The Third Man” which takes place in postwar Vienna and the 2012 film by Australian Cate Shortland, “ Lore”, and “Ida” which actually takes place in the 60s, there are not many outstanding films about what happened in Germany (and Austria) after the war.

“Phoenix” is an instant classic which will withstand the judgement of time. We’ll see if it is the German submission for Academy Award nomination, a well-deserved accolade. It could well win the Oscar for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film.

The film has played in the 2014 film festivals of Toronto, Vancouver, London, Romeand Seattle.

Sundance Selects opened “Phoenix” on July 24 in New York. It will open in L.A. on Friday, July 31 and then rolls out nationwide. International sales agent, The Match Factory, has licensed the film

Argentina - Alfa Films S.A

Australia - Madman Entertai

Austria - Stadtkino-Filmv

Benelux - A-Film Benelux

Brazil - Imovision

Canada - Films We Like

Canada - Eyesteelfilm

Denmark - Camera Film A/S

Finland - Future Film Oy/

France - Diaphana

Germany - Piffl Medien Gm

Germany - The Match Facto

Greece - Seven Films

Hungary - Cirko Film Kft.

Italy - Bim Distribuzio

Japan - New Select Co.

Latin Ameri- Palmera Interna

Norway - Arthaus

Poland - Aurora Films

Portugal - Leopardo Filmes

Slovenia - Demiurg

Spain - Golem Distribuc

Sweden - Folkets Bio

Switzerlan - Look Now! Filmd

Taiwan - Swallow Wings F

Turkey - Calinos Films

U.K. - Soda Pictures

U.S. - IFCFilms/ Sundance Selects
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