Phoenix (2014)

After her return from the death camps, why do people want to own and exploit her?

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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.

Phoenix - 1 Lene (foreground) introduces Nelly to the wreckage that was once her home

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 Continue reading

Return from the Ashes (1965)

After her return from the death camps, does her unscrupulous husband want to love her . . . or kill her?

UK, US / 107 minutes / bw / Mirisch, UA Dir & Pr: J. Lee Thompson Scr: Julius Epstein Story: Le Retour des Cendres (1961) by Hubert Monteilhet Cine: Christopher Challis Cast: Maximilian Schell, Samantha Eggar, Ingrid Thulin, Herbert Lom, Talitha Pol, Vladek Sheybal, Jacques Cey, Jacques Brunius, Eugene Keeley.

Return from the Ashes - 0a

Occupying the same sort of territory as The THIRD MAN (1949), this is the first of—to date—three screen adaptations of Monteilhet’s novel. The other two are:

The latter is covered here.

Return from the Ashes - 0b

It’s the winter of the liberation of France from the loathed Nazi occupation. Aboard a train bound for Paris, a disobedient small boy, Robert (Keeley), opens the door and falls out into the night and presumably his doom. All of the passengers in the compartment are distraught, save one. The woman in the corner (Thulin) seems completely unmoved by events. The others are prepared to be critical of her until they notice the numbers tattooed on her forearm; she’s a Jewish survivor of the concentration camps, and her seeming imperturbability is born not from heartlessness but from traumatic alienation and the crude reconstructive surgery that’s been done on her face.

Arriving in Paris, she books herself into a cheap hotel under the name Julia Robert, even though, as the desk clerk (Cey) points out, according to her papers her name is Michele Wolff-Pilgrin. She tells him she wishes to hide under an assumed name for a while . . .

Return from the Ashes - 1 The Michele we first meet bears the scars of her ordeals

 The Michele we first meet (Ingrid Thulin) bears the scars of her ordeals.

Soon, in a prolonged flashback, we learn her story—and that the face she now bears is not the one she had a few years ago, before the torment of the camps and a clumsy reconstruction job after injury.

A widow, by the latter half of the 1930s she was working as a successful X-ray clinician in a Paris hospital. From her late husband she inherited a stepdaughter, Fabienne, whom she rarely saw, just shuffling her around from one English boarding school to another.

One night at her local chess club Michele ran into the impoverished would-be professional chess player Stanislas “Stan” Pilgrin (Schell), who took her for three games of chess to the tune of ninety francs. Later that night, even though she recognized he was a scoundrel, she Continue reading