Dear friends and readers,
I hasten to write about this film to recommend it lest it leave movie-houses quickly. It seemed in no danger of this after its second week of screening at my local semi-art film theater (calls itself Cinema Arts Theater) as in the later afternoon on a weekday there were still some 20+ people in the auditorium; but as this theater has a substantial percentage of Jewish customers and it’s been billed as a holocaust film, a first intense interest is understandable. The title in English and one of its sources (1965 film, Return from the Ashes) offers a clearer idea of its slightly fantastic story content and theme.
Phoenix caught my attention because it stars Nina Hoss who starred in the powerful film adaptation by Max Faberbock of Marta Hiller’s A Woman in Berlin (about gang and individual ceaseless rapes in war); it is a another startling movie focusing on a woman that works like a fable and thus reminded me of another German film, The Wall (Marien Haushofen’s novel adapted by Julian Polsler). I do tell what I understand of the ending and a couple of central acts in order to give the feel of makes this movie valuable as an experience.
The first act is Nelly (Nina Hoss), is brought out of a concentration camp with her face just about totally ruined (smashed cheek bones, nose, horrible behind bandages) by Lene (Nina Kuzendorf) who works on the humanitarian tasks of “bringing” back into society the devastated human remnants of these camps. We are to believe an operation restores her just about wholly, that she cannot resist hunting for her long-lost husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), and readily finds him in a Berlin nightclub. No one could be so restored as she is by the end.
Another holocaust story you might still say, or about German guilt but that does not capture its inner life. The characters are haunting, haunted people, and the way it’s filmed (in a bomb-devastated impoverished Berlin) suggests how intense is the human emotion to recapture one’s identity if it has been taken away, to take back and resume a past that seems to have been wiped out, utterly undermined forever. It is about Nelly’s refusal to give up a love and set of beliefs in the value of humanity because not only the person you loved but everyone else around you betrayed you.
Nelly persists. After the initial getting past the check-point (some danger for the brutal soldiery only let Lene pass when she shows them Nelly’s damaged face), Nelly’s surgery and first recovery, she begins to wander the wasteland streets, and bars and clubs open all night. We see women dragged out of these places and beat up by men in the wastelands behind the taverns; some of them enact super-sexy numbers on stage (parodies of Marlene Dietrich), and we fear for Nelly. Johnny is one of the poorly paid waiters.
We are afraid of Johnny when she meets him, he is rough and domineering. Lene gets Nelly a gun and says if she can’t use it, just pulling it out might help. So it’s about the abuse of women in part, and the violence of men — the SS guards at the checkpoints are frightening, ready to kill or maim; to call the men in the film patriarchal doesn’t capture the steely feel of them.
There is an muted but intense grief suffused throughout the movie whose active dynamic comes from Nelly’s ceaseless quest (she says she cannot resist it) first to get her original face back through plastic surgery and then to find her husband. The first direct loss in the action of the film itself is Lene’s: Lene has brought her out; Lene has found a place for them to live they can afford, has arranged for the surgery, and now plants a new life for Nelly in Israel, but Nelly protests she is not a religious or even secular Jew — she was a German and is a German woman. Lene is not disinterested: the mannish way she dresses and her affection for Nelly suggests that Lene is a lesbian, and loves Nelly intensely. She feel after all she has done for Nelly, Nelly is not reciprocating in the way Lene has planned for her. Moreover, Nelly’s behavior suggests she forgives her husband, will allow herself to be used and dominated again. Lene asks, Are there not some acts that are unforgivable?
Lene tells Nelly after Nelly finds Johnny that Johnny betrayed her. He told the gestapo where she was. Nelly’s sense is that Johnny did this out of fear for himself, he was not active in it. Lene then tells Nelly that Johnny did get in touch with her to see if he could inherit the money she had from her years as a cabaret singer and from her family (there’s a fine mansion in his family now half-ruined). All this does is galvanize Nelly to pretend to be Esther, someone else who offers to imitate Nelly for Johnny, offers to enact the role so he can claim she is alive after all and both of them take the money. She puts on the clothes he buys for her and her old shoes which (miraculously?) fit her.
We see while he is willing to be courteous and on the surface kind to Nelly-Esther, he is also willing to do anything to Esther to make her look like Nelly, and as Esther gradually begins to look like Nelly he becomes confused and troubled but his emotions are not enough to deter him say from asking her to re-carve numbers on her arm so that she will look like she’s been in a concentration camp.
The movie comes to a first climax when Nelly comes home for her usual reports to Lene (she does not desert Lene) and finds Lene has shot and killed herself. Lene is that desolated at Nelly’s behavior, made that desperate at Nelly’s abjection. Her last act just before was to leave Nelly documents: those which show Johnny actively betrayed her and a set of divorce papers where he divorced himself from her in order to have no ties or responsibility towards her. The suicide and these papers have a strong effect on Nelly; she seems almost to give up her project of pleasing Johnny, but she does not. She persists.
The culminating thing Johnny needs for Nelly-Esther (how he sees her) to do is get on a train and meet the members of their old community and friends; they must recognize her without him pointing her out. He tells Nelly who they are and what to say to them and what they will automatically say in response — their cant. They utter that cant. They all look like they are rejoicing, she hugs Johnny and all go to a room in the mansion. He sits at the piano for her to sing as a final proof. She begins awkwardly by the end she is singing Cole Porter’s Night and Day (a song played on and off through the movie) as melodiously and hauntingly as she once did. He looks at her and finally seems to recognize she is really Nelly and look remorseful or at her as a person. At this she stops singing, she looks around at these phony superficial people and slips out the door.
What has happened? it’s left ambiguously. In life Nelly was a singer, wife, chatelaine — it’s like she is no longer in life anymore even if she has her appearance back — and when Nelly has fooled everyone and it seems that Johnny will get the inherited money, she looks about her and walks away from them all. It’s as if this song is a final blow. But on whom?
Will she walk away? or stay around the corner for another turn of events and just live with these memories. If the emphasis is on how this is the return of ashes, then she will at least escape from these people, refuse to pretend to trust them and that all is the same. But if the emphasis is on persistence and the need for an identity, she will stay as she has no other choice she can stand. She did not want to make herself into a Jew she never was; she does not want a false identity.
The film comes to no conclusion what she should do. In a way it relates to all the movies of devastated worlds, people floating about anonymously, identifies destroyed, but it is more like Mr Holmes and I’ll Dream of You in that there is a community to return to, belong to — sort of. The difference is this community Nelly re-finds, betrayed her before: all of the people were willing to give her up to the Nazis as she was born a Jew lest they get in any kind of trouble. We are to ask what would this community do if the world turned upside down again and they had to give her up again. Would they hesitate?