After her return from the death camps, why do people want to own and exploit her?
Germany / 98 minutes / color / Schramm Film Koerner & Weber, Tempus, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, arte, Piffi Dir: Christian Petzold Pr: Florian Koerner von Gustorf, Michael Weber Scr: Christian Petzold, Harun Farocki Story: Le Retour des Cendres (1961) by Hubert Monteilhet Cine: Hans Fromm Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Michael Maertens, Imogen Kogge, Valerie Koch, Eva Bay, Megan Gay, Frank Seppeler, Daniela Holtz, Kathrin Wehlisch, Michael Wenninger, Claudia Geisler-Bading.
This is the third screen adaptation of Monteilhet’s novel; the first was J. Lee Thompson’s Return from the Ashes (1965), which I discussed here a few days ago. If you watch the two movies back to back, as I did, it’s blatant that they’re both based on the same work; but at the same time there are so many differences—the two are faithful and unfaithful to the novel in certain but different ways, while in many respects they’re poles apart in terms of “feel” and subtext—that really it makes sense to treat them as independent of each other. (The second screen adaptation, which I haven’t seen, was Le Retour d’Élisabeth Wolff [1982 TVM] dir Josée Dayan, with Malka Ribowska, Niels Arestrup, Clémentine Amouroux and Roland Bertin.)
In order to discuss this movie meaningfully, I’m going to have to talk about its ending. To be honest, it’s not one of those movies where a spoiler’s going to destroy your enjoyment—it’s a very satisfying tale even if you know what’s going to happen—but you’ve been warned. (Besides, I’ve missed out various of the other major plot turns.)
It’s 1945 and onetime Berlin cabaret singer Nelly Lenz (Hoss), hideously facially disfigured after a year in Auschwitz, is brought back into the city’s US sector by her old friend Lene Winter (Kunzendorf), who’s part of the Jewish committee clearing up the postwar mess.
Lene (Nina Kunzendorf, foreground) introduces Nelly (Nina Hoss) to the wreckage that was once her home.
Lene seems to have taken it upon herself to control every aspect of Nelly’s life. She arranges for Nelly to have reconstructive facial surgery at the hands of plastic surgeon Dr. Arzt (Maertens)—Nelly shows a first sign of rebellion here, insisting that he attempt to restore her own face rather than giving her filmstar looks. Lene finds a Berlin apartment for the two of them to share, and hires the housekeeper Elisabeth Schwarz (Kogge) to run the place for them. Like Lene, Elisabeth assumes Nelly is someone whom it’s up to others to govern—right down to whether or not there should be music playing at mealtimes—as if Nelly’s ordeal has somehow transformed her into a small, witless child.
The first sight that Nelly (Nina Hoss) has of her new face.
Lene tells Nelly that she’s now a wealthy woman: all the members of her extended family were wiped out by the Nazis and she is their heir. The thing to do with all that money, Lene decrees, is for the two of them to go live in what is still Palestine and help—financially and otherwise—in the establishment of the new Jewish state, Israel. To this end, Lene has been getting hold of the details of elegant apartments in Tel Aviv and Haifa . . .
Elisabeth (Imogen Kogge), who never really approves of anything Nelly does.
What Nelly wants to do is largely dismissed by her two captors—for that’s really what they are. She managed to survive Auschwitz by looking forward to her reunion with pianist husband Johannes “Johnny” Lenz (Zehrfeld). Of course, she’s aware that her face is still grotesque in the aftermath of the plastic surgery, but surely in due course the scars will heal. Lene’s response when Nelly makes this point is a curt “Johnny doesn’t interest me.”
Nelly can’t understand this hostility on Lene’s part, but we can. Lene has serendipitously discovered that Johnny quietly divorced his wife just a couple of days before her arrest by the Nazis, and the likelihood seems strong that, under threat of torture or himself being sent to the camps, he betrayed her hiding place.
Nelly (Nina Hoss) watches the floor show at the Phoenix . . .
. . . performed by singers Vicky and Lola (Valerie Koch and Eva Bay).
Wandering the city at night, a net veil partially hiding her ravaged features, Nelly eventually locates Johnny at the Phoenix nightclub, where he’s working as not a musician but a menial. She approaches him a couple of times but he shows no signs of recognizing her; besides, he, like everyone else bar Lene, assumes that Nelly succumbed in Auschwitz.
And then one night he realizes that, beneath the scars, this unknown woman looks a bit like his wife—enough so, in fact, that, once she’s healed and with a bit of grooming, she might very well pass for Nelly. And in that case they could get their hands on Nelly’s inheritance, barred from him because there are no official records of Nelly’s death. He shanghais her to his own tatty basement apartment and starts tutoring her in how to imitate Nelly’s stance, the way she dyed her hair, the makeup she used, the clothing, the handwriting . . . One of the changes seems to happen spontaneously: where before she walked with the hobbling, hesitant gait of the oppressed, as her confidence grows with Johnny so does that of her stride.
Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) judges whether or not “Esther’s” resemblance to Nelly is sufficiently convincing.
He gets her a dress and shoes from Paris because, when the public charade starts, their friends and acquaintances will “want Nelly. Not a ragged camp internee.” Because of their guilt at permitting or even facilitating the atrocity of the Holocaust, no one in Berlin wants to know what went on in the camps—people avoid even looking at the camp survivors.
Although Johnny’s insistent that “Esther” (Nelly’s assumed name, that of a friend of hers whom the Nazis slew) should stay always indoors—he doesn’t want to risk her running into anyone who knew Nelly—she sneaks back on occasion to visit Lene and tell her what’s happening. Despite Nelly’s claim that she’s being reborn as a consequence of her recrudescent relationship—however bizarre—with Johnny, Lene is still bitterly opposed to him:
“When you were sitting there in the dark, I thought you’d come to tell me you’d shot him and needed my help. Honestly, I’d have preferred that.”
We suspect, too, that Lene has an ulterior motive. It seems to be not just that she regards herself as Nelly’s controller as a matter of right, but that she’s in love with the woman, that she’s trying to take advantage of Nelly’s vulnerability in order to replace Johnny in her life. In other words, Lene seems to be scorning Johnny at least in part because he’s her romantic rival.
The look Johnny tells “Esther” she should try to emulate.
There’s a further emotional complication. Although we’re certain—because of Lene’s discovery of the divorce, because of his mercenary attitude toward the inheritance, because of the suspected betrayal—that Johnny’s an unscrupulous cad, there are signs everywhere that his feelings for his presumed-dead wife were far deeper than we’ve been led to believe. He’s a handsome enough man, yet there are no signs of a girlfriend. (In the novel and in Return from the Ashes the returner’s husband is now living with her daughter/stepdaughter from an earlier marriage.) He insists that in private “Esther” calls him Johannes, not Johnny, as if trying to keep her at an emotional distance, to make sure he doesn’t confuse her with Nelly in his own feelings. And his pain seems genuine enough as he tells “Esther” about the latter stages of his and Nelly’s life together:
“First the grocer wouldn’t sell to us. Then Mr. Schmidt-Ott opposite. Nelly was banned from singing. Friends didn’t come by any more. Sigrid and Walther Hochbaum lived on the third floor. They stopped coming too. I had to hide Nelly in the winter of 1943. Lehmann wouldn’t let her in the bomb shelter. We were sure he’d denounce Nelly soon. He envied us our apartment. A friend who’d died at the front had a houseboat on the lake nearby. That’s where I took her . . .”
Almost, but not quite, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) is ready to admit to himself that he’s falling in love with “Esther” (Nina Hoss).
Johnny’s plan is that he’ll put “Esther” locally aboard a long-distance train from the east, so that he and some of their friends—including the Walther (Wenninger) and Sigrid (Holtz) Hochbaum who spurned them before—can meet her off the train as a miraculous survivor. He orchestrates—almost choreographs—the reunion scene in advance, and as he and “Esther” rehearse we feel once again that he’s suppressing his true, very deep feeling for the lost Nelly and working hard to resist the impulse to take “Esther” in his arms as Nelly reborn.
Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) and “Esther” (Nina Hoss) cycling together out into the woods for another part of Johnny’s careful preparation.
At the nearby local station there’s a poignant moment when, as Nelly’s waiting on the platform, a freight train slowly passes through. We share the misery that swamps her on seeing that long string of cattle cars go by . . .
The movie’s conclusion is devastating. Where Return from the Ashes opted for a thriller-like climax (as, in a sense, did the novel), the finale here instead deals an emotional bodyblow. After the great reunion—which transpires almost exactly according to Johnny’s script—the friends go for a celebratory meal. Midway through it, Nelly, by now convinced that Johnny betrayed her to the Nazi thugs, insists that, with Johnny as her accompanist, she sing them one of the numbers they used to perform at the nightclubs together, “Speak Low”; in Auschwitz, she tells them, she imagined the day when once again she and Johnny would do a song together.
As “Esther” sings, everyone in the room recognizes Nelly’s voice. To Johnny it’s a revelation, as is the moment when his eyes stray towards “Esther’s” forearm, where he sees the tattooed concentration-camp numbers.
And at that point, as his realization sinks in, Nelly simply walks out the door, leaving him with nothing more of her than the recognition of what he has lost.
What Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) sees at last.
There were times during the middle section of Phoenix where it seemed to be dragging a little—the details of Johnny’s painstaking preparation of his scheme pall after a while—but by the end of the movie I was convinced that those temporary longueurs were an essential part of it all, as was the buildup of our exasperation with Nelly for seemingly being such a wimp . . . for still so cravenly wanting Johnny’s love.
Phoenix was, I gather, a fairly low-budget endeavor, but its production standards are top-notch. The cinematography is crisp, with noirishly creative use of shadows on occasion, and it has a nice inventiveness that’s never allowed to get in the way of the storytelling.
The three (four, if you count Kogge as Elisabeth) leading members of the cast deliver impeccable performances. Does Lene want to be Nelly’s lover or is she just a really good friend? (Or is she a partisan working to further Zionist ideals?) Kunzendorf’s rendition of her splendidly leaves it all ambiguous. There’s the same ambiguity in Zehrfeld’s characterization of Johnny; I still can’t decide if Johnny is an exploitative scoundrel or a maligned individual or (as I reckon is probably the case) a mixture of both.
And then there’s Nina Hoss’s portrayal of Nelly, which is a triumph. Part of the credit must go to the makeup department, who succeeded in plaining down Hoss quite a lot: even once she’s fully returned to her former appearance, Nelly still lacks Hoss’s loveliness. It would have been so easy to conform to cinema traditions and have the lead actress as a total babe, but director Petzold resisted that temptation and the movie’s all the stronger for it. We start off by feeling for Nelly as if she were a bird with a broken wing; by the end of Phoenix we’re rooting for her because she’s rediscovered her inner strength.
As I said at the outset, Return from the Ashes and Phoenix are two very different movies, both of them very much worth watching. Of the two, though, I think it’s the latter that’ll dwell in my mind the longer.