3 Stars – Thought Provoking
The fictional tale of a holocaust survivor’s return to her family and friends is a story exploring human identity and relationship. Adapted from a French novel by Hubert Monteilhet and moving the location to Berlin, German director Christian Petzold creates an artistic, subtitled film with the assistance of writer Harun Farocki.
The central character is Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss). Nelly had been in a concentration camp when the war ended and was shot in the face and left for dead. But miraculously she survived and her friend Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf) has brought her back to Berlin not only for facial reconstruction but to compel her to immigrate to Israel with her. As the only surviving member of her family Nelly inherited great wealth. It is this complete facial re-creation and pressure to leave her home and immigrate that throws Nelly into an existential struggle. She fears that looking like a different person will mean she is no longer who she once was and changing nations will reinforce that disturbance.
Making this identity struggle all the more difficult is her love for her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) who Lene informs her betrayed her to the Nazis to save himself. Nelly’s love for Johnny will not allow her to entertain such a thought and she seeks him out. Finding him no longer the piano player as he had been for Nelly’s singing career, Johnny is now the busboy in a club appropriately named the Phoenix.
Believing Nelly is dead, Johnny sees her reconstructed face but believes she could pass for Nelly. Inviting her to join him in conning friends and family as well as the bank, he invites Nelly to become an imposter of herself. Wanting to restore their relationship she agrees.
Without spoiling this complicated journey, the existential questions are many: If your own husband does not recognize you after face reconstruction, then is that a reflection of his blindness or your own loss of self? What makes us who we are? How is it that we know each other? Does betrayal or even the temptation to betray cause us to no longer see the one we betrayed? If we believe a beloved is dead, would we have such strong denial that even if they rose from the ashes we would not recognize them?
There is no doubt that war rips apart the fabric of a nation and deforms the bodies of its people as shown by this film. But this film also visually immerses the fragmented souls of the survivors within the bombed buildings of Berlin, showing both to be ruins. In addition, the use of darkness, minimal beauty and empty eyes all work to create an artistic masterpiece that is nevertheless uncomfortable and morally bankrupt. Phoenix is thus both message and medium as Nelly attempts to rise above it all and find her way into a future of love and life.
- The relationship between Lene and Nelly is never explained. How do you think they know each other and what do you think were Lene’s intentions? On what basis do you make your claims?
- As Nelly finds a way to reveal her true identity to Johnny we see the confused realization on his face. What do you believe happened then? What do you think her friends really thought about both Johnny and Nelly?
- If your closest person were to go through a complete facial reconstruction do you think you would recognize them? How much of our knowing of another is based on external appearance? Johnny did not recognize Nelly even when they kissed. Would you recognize your loved one by their kiss?