Petzhold’s Phoenix (2014) is celebrated with Manhattan rescreening

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What does it mean to come back alive from a death camp? What does it mean to rise from the dead like the fabled phoenix rising from its ashes? That is the theme Christian Petzhold explores in his 2014 film Phoenix, released a year before the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the many death camps that dotted the map of German-occupied territory during World War II. Now showing at the IFC Center theater, Phoenix shows a look back into one of the most impactful genocides of all time. In the film, protagonist Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) returns to Germany for facial reconstructive surgery after a horrible disfigurement during her imprisonment; she was arrested in October 1944 and sent to Auschwitz. Accompanied by her friend Lene Winter (Nina Kuzendorf), she is encouraged by her steadfast friend who works for a repatriation organization to immigrate to Palestine after settling money owed to her by Germany.

Nelly is on a mission to find her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), a pianist who remained in Berlin. He is working in a nightclub ironically called the Phoenix. Therefore, Petzhold’s conceit includes the rebirth of a love between man and wife that arrest and imprisonment tore asunder.

Once a man of class, he becomes a brute who abuses women for rough sex and steals their money, and takes back his German name Johannes.  When she calls his name, he does not recognize Nelly, wearing a hat with a netted veil covering two black eyes from her surgery.

Yet, he sees a something in her restored features that vaguely reminds him of his wife whom he firmly believes has perished in Auschwitz.

He has a plan; he molds a willing Nelly, down to her Parisian-made shoes, red dress, dyed hair and sensuous painted red lips, into the image of his wife. He puts her through the paces so that she can pass as his wife who holds the key to the $20,000 that he cannot claim until she has returned from the death camp.

And here again Petzhold reintroduces the Phoenix theme; Johannes gives life to his newly created “Nelly” by raising her from the ashes of his dead wife in the ovens of Birkenau. It is interesting to note that Johnny does not make a move to seduce his “Nelly.” He never uses the familiar you form “Du.” He always uses the formal pronoun “Sie” in his exchanges with her. And in language, anyone with the merest knowledge of German opens a wider window on Johnny’s character as a clever finagler, who has staked his energies on cashing in on his wife’s fortune.

Meanwhile, Lene tries to reason with Nelly to come away with her to Tel Aviv or Haifa, a land for the Jews. For her, Germany is no longer good for the Jews who embraced German culture completely contributing everything to build Germany and in the end found “reward” in the gas chambers.

Yet, Nelly demurs, as she explains that her guiding idea that kept her alive was to be reunited with her husband. Lene despairs and commits suicide but not without leaving a letter for Nelly, explaining that it is Johnny who denounced her to the Nazis and not only that, but a day after her arrest filed in the Reich Ministry for a divorce that was immediately granted.

Nelly, after meeting friends with Johnny who has staged the whole show, sings her signature song, “Speak Low,” a Kurt Weill song from One Touch of Venus. As she slowly begins singing, her long, silent voice becomes stronger and more emotional as Johnny is at the piano wearing a self-satisfied smile on his lips.

As Nelly raises her arm, her sleeve rides up exposing her tattoo. At that critical moment, the camera freezes in its frame on  Johnny, in utter disbelief that his wife had truly survived the hell that was Auschwitz. And so as the screen darkens, Nelly has truly arisen as a phoenix, as she walks out of the restaurant, leaving a husband who betrayed her and friends of another time. Pretzhold uses his camera well.

It focuses on the face of Nelly and Johnny, implicit in his direction is his choice and arrangement of detail to recall the symbol of the phoenix that under many guises emerges again and again in the total atmosphere he has created. For even the terrible truth of betrayal cannot destroy Nelly, who has walked out a new woman from a sorrowful past.

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