This essay about the German film Phoenix was written for World Cinema.
By Kitty Williams
Christian Petzold’s 2014 film Phoenix explores the emotional recovery two individuals must endure after World War II. After World War II, many films in Europe were very raw. The war was such a major influence on the world that films began to reflect the changes in a very real way. Nelly, a German Jewish woman is recovering physically and emotionally from her time in the concentration camps and the facial wound she sustained there. In her eyes, recovery means going back to the way things were rather than moving forward. Her husband, Johnny, is focused more on his own recovery financially. He believes her to be dead and his primary goal is to receive her inheritance. He does this by making Nelly over to look like Nelly, not realizing it is in fact her. Though this makeover satisfies both of their agendas in the beginning, it is Nelly who truly recovers, leaving Johnny with the guilt for what he has done to her. Phoenix approaches the raw truths of post-war life in a powerful way, getting at the core of relationships.
After the war, particularly for those who were released from concentration camps, life was very different. Those who were lucky enough to live to see their release from such torture emerged in a changed world. Nelly returns home from the concentration camp and is in the care of her friend Lene. She undergoes facial reconstruction surgery and emerges with a new face despite pleading for her old one. “I want to look exactly like I used to,” she says. This not because she was particularly fond of her appearance before the war, but because she was fond of her life before the war and she believes having that face back will bring a piece of that life back with it. Before the war, people were glamorized in movies with the use of lighting and costuming. After the war, this was not done as often. People were hardened to the realities of life. Similarly, in Phoenix, we hear from Nelly and others how beautiful she was before the war. She is not glamorized on camera but in memory. Now, her face sans makeup (in the beginning of the film) holds the realism of the post-war era. It is only when she feels back to her pre-war self that she begins to wear makeup and brightly colored dresses.
The film also deals with the very real emotional traumas raised by the war. Nelly’s husband believes her to be dead and yet when he sees her he believes her to be a lookalike that he can use to steal her inheritance. Lene tries to convince Nelly that he betrayed her to the Nazis, but she doesn’t listen. She allows him to dress her up to pull off his plan. She clings to the idea of being herself again and living her old life. She does it in an effort to reinsert herself into her old life when in actuality it is making her a spectator of her own life. Their interactions are less about their romantic relationship and more about the need they both have to make things better for themselves. For Johnny, that is money; for Nelly, that is reconnecting with who she was before the betrayal, concentration camp, and facial reconstruction.
War has a deep and lasting affect on everything, including cinema. In turn, it affects Phoenix’s Nelly and Johnny. The pre-war Nelly we hear about is a representation of pre-war cinema. The Nelly we see is in search of who she was, and strives to achieve this by pleading for her old face and going in search of her husband. She doesn’t want her face to look beautiful, or Johnny for romance, but for her old life. Though she fights to be her pre-war self, she has become a recovered version of herself.