French crime writer Hubert Montheilhet’s second novel, “Le retour des cendres” (1961)—translated in 1963 as “Return from the Ashes”—was adapted for the screen in 1965 under that title. Now the book itself is resuscitated, after a fashion, by Christian Petzold in “Phoenix,” but he and co-writer Harun Farocki have jettisoned most of the novel’s (and the J. Lee Thompson film’s) more melodramatic contrivances, boiling the narrative down to a simple but powerful parable of rebirth involving love, loss, betrayal, guilt, and greed in a post-war Germany where the enormities of the Holocaust are still immediate and unresolved.
As the film begins in 1945, Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a Jewish cabaret singer who survived Auschwitz but with her face badly disfigured by a bullet wound, is being taken by her friend Lene Winter (Nina Kurzendorf) to an advanced clinic for reconstructive surgery. Despite the doctor’s suggestion that new faces carry certain advantages, she insists that he attempt, so far as possible, to restore her own face, and the operation is quite successful in that regard. After she recuperates and returns to Berlin, Lene arranges an apartment for the two of them, along with a super-competent housekeeper named Elisabeth (Imogen Kogge), and begins making arrangements for their joint move to Palestine.
Nelly, however, has different ideas. Despite Lene’s warnings against doing so, she tries to find her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), a pianist with whom she’s still deeply in love. She eventually locates him working at a club called Phoenix, catering to GIs in the American sector—not, however, as a musician but a simple busboy calling himself Johannes. He doesn’t recognize her as his wife, whom he presumes to be dead, and Nelly doesn’t disabuse him of the error, introducing herself as a woman named Esther. But noticing a strong similarity to Nelly, he suggests that the two of them might help one another. If Esther could successfully impersonate Nelly, he explains, she could claim a large inheritance that he’s unable to secure without proof of his wife’s death, which will never be forthcoming; they could then share the windfall. Nelly/Esther agrees to the plan, and begins training with Johnny in his barren basement flat to embody Nelly well enough to convince their few surviving relatives and friends that she’s miraculously returned from the camps.
The crux of the situation lies in Nelly’s attitude toward Johnny. Lene, who’s looked into the documentary evidence, is convinced that Johnny, who’d hidden Nelly on a houseboat, had betrayed her to the authorities in order to save his own hide and was responsible for her arrest and deportation to Auschwitz. She also has evidence that he’d divorced Nelly in her absence. But she withholds the proof from Nelly in the hope that her friend will see through Johnny on her own and come with her to Tel Aviv or Haifa. Nelly, in fact, does look into the events surrounding her arrest, and as things become clearer her attitude becomes more ambiguous. She will go through the false imposture scheme that Johnny has meticulously coached her on, but it may not work out exactly as he hopes.
Petzold, who presented a stinging portrait of the East German system that arose after the war in his last film “Barbara” (also starring Hoss), frames “Phoenix” as a noirish suspense film, a cousin of “Vertigo” that moves, like Hitchcock’s, very deliberately and sensuously while following the refashioning of a woman to meet a man’s requirements. But as the title—and the name of the cabaret where Johnny now works—indicates, it’s not merely Nelly who’s being reborn in the fashion of the mythological bird: it’s Germany itself, and the question is whether it will choose the route suggested by Johnny, rooted in denial and deception, or accept the truth and act accordingly. The film ends with a beautifully orchestrated moment that acts as much as a slap in the face as Thomas Bernhard’s novels are (though his target, of course, is Austria—also a part of the Reich, and one whose postwar history is in many respects not terribly admirable); and it leaves the viewer to make his own assessment.
One needs a willing suspension of disbelief to swallow the central premise of “Phoenix,” but in that respect it’s no different from “Vertigo,” and it shares many virtues with that film. Its lead performance is outstanding; Hoss underplays masterfully, expressing Nelly’s confused emotions but with an exquisite economy of gesture, and Zehrfeld captures Johnny’s gruff practicality and cunning nicely. Kurzendorf, moreover, creates a pointed portrait of the wrenching effect of the wartime experience, trapped between trying to move forward and an inability to escape the past. K.D. Gruber’s production design and Anette Guther’s costumes reflect the time without exaggeration, while Hans Fromm’s widescreen cinematography employs color and shadow to create a brooding atmosphere and Bettina Bohler’s editing finds its rhythm in Hoss’ reticence and Petzold’s unhurried pacing. Stefan Wills’ moody score adds to the dank, somber mood.
There will undoubtedly be some who find fault with “Phoenix” for a story that strains credulity or its narrative deliberation. But both actually contribute to its underlying theme of national regeneration after the most pernicious moral debasement. Thompson’s version of Montheilhet’s book was content to be a twisty thriller; Petzold’s strives, and succeeds, at being that and more.