German Holocaust film ‘Phoenix’ examines life after death camps


The phoenix is a mythical firebird that lives for centuries, dies in flames and then rises from its ashes to start life anew.

Phoenix is the name of a nightclub in 1945 Berlin, a city consumed by Allied bombs and Russian canons, trying to rise again after Germany’s crushing defeat in World War II.

And “Phoenix” is the title of a haunting German film, which, like its mythical namesake, can be accepted only on its own terms after a determined suspension of disbelief.

The film opens with American soldiers of the occupation force stopping a car. In the passenger seat sits a woman, her face completely covered by bandages, except for two eye slits.

She is Nelly, a German Jew and former nightclub singer, who has survived Auschwitz but has paid with a disfigured face, scarred by a bullet.

At the hospital, doctors offer to reconstruct her face in the image of anyone she wants, even the Jewish beauty Hedy Lamarr, but Nelly insists she wants her old face back.

After the operation, with Nelly looking almost like her old self, her friend Lene urges her to start a new life in Palestine. Nelly refuses because the only hope that sustained her in the concentration camp — and drives her now — is her burning love for her “Aryan” husband, Johnny.

Her search for him leads through the rubble-strewn streets of Berlin to the Phoenix nightclub, where Johnny now works as a busboy. She calls out to him and though other people recognize the slightly altered Nelly, Johnny views her as a stranger.

Yet he detects some resemblance to his wife, who, he presumes, died in Auschwitz, and he recruits her in a plot he is hatching. It calls for reshaping the assumed refugee into his former wife so he can get his hands on the inheritance left to Nelly by relatives killed in the Holocaust.

Nelly plays along, hoping desperately that at some point Johnny will recognize her as his wife, and much of the rest of the film hangs on that supposed charade.

Is it really possible for a man, married to a woman for years, not to recognize her, even if she has the “deceased’s” handwriting and fits perfectly into her dress and shoes?

We put this question to Christian Petzold, the film’s director, who broke down his analysis into two points.

“There are strong indications that Johnny revealed his Jewish wife’s hiding place to the Nazis and he has now built a wall around his mind to deny this, even to himself,” said Petzold, one of his country’s leading directors.

There is yet another aspect. “I’ve talked to many survivors of the camps and when they came back, old neighbors didn’t recognize them and nobody asked what had happened to them,” Petzold said. “The survivors said they felt like invisible walking ghosts.”

Still, the plotline and Petzold’s explanations may seem far-fetched, but they gain credence through the exceptional performance of Nina Hoss, one of Germany’s finest dramatic actresses, as Nelly. She is ably complemented by Ronald Zehrfeld as Johnny and Nina Kunzendorf as Lene.

Running through the film like an elegy is the Kurt Weill-Ogden Nash torch song “Speak Low.”

Among the questions raised by “Phoenix” is why, 70 years after the end of World War II, producers and directors continue to make films on Holocaust themes, and why Petzold chose this particular storyline for his film.

“There are many Holocaust-themed movies but few of them are post-Auschwitz ‘homecoming’ stories,” Petzold said. He cited the German writer Alexander Kluge as observing that in Greek mythology, “It took Odysseus 10 years to reintegrate into society, because, after the battle for Troy, he couldn’t come straight home.”

Additionally, “home” no longer really existed for many Germans and almost all Jewish survivors after the war, Petzold noted.

The director, 54, was born well after the war. It took a new generation of Germans to face reality and, in the 1960s and ’70s, rise against their fathers and hold them accountable for the war and the Holocaust, he said.

In large part, the consciousness of the extent and guilt of the Holocaust came from the impact of documentaries by French-American director Marcel Ophuls (“The Sorrow and the Pity”) and the American TV miniseries “Holocaust,” Petzold noted.

“Phoenix” opens in theaters July 31.

+