Last weekend, my husband and I saw German filmmaker Christian Petzold’s Phoenix in the local non-profit movie theater. Initially we planned to see Mr. Holmes but the tickets were sold out; so instead, we decided to see Phoenix since one of its selling points “Hitchcockian” was attractive despite the fact that the film was set in post WWII Berlin (this setting usually denotes devastating darkness). In addition, I liked the title “Phoenix” since it reminded me of my favorite (when I was very young) D.H. Lawrence poem of the same title.
We purchased the tickets and went out to have early dinner. We were surprised to see the packed theater. (According to the box office attendant he did not understand why, on that particular day, so many people came to see Mr. Holmes, which had been being shown in the same theater for more than 1 month. Later I came to know, through the local TV news, many homes south of Seattle lost power due to a wind storm earlier that day. I thought I understood the sudden popularity of not only Mr. Holmes but also Phoenix: the people who lost power at home wanted to spend more pleasant time at movie theaters.) The theater was packed, and I was pleased to see so many people who came to see independent or foreign films.
The film started very darkly, presenting black as its main color. A young Jewish woman Lena was transporting another person whose head was covered with bandage in a car. When the car stops at the city border to Berlin, an American soldier demands the passenger to remove the bandage. The slightly child-like soldier gets shocked to see the disfigured face, a result of gun-shot wound. We audience do not see the face but can easily infer the ghastliness of the disfigurement by seeing the soldier’s reaction. The woman, Nelly, is being transported to a medical facility in Berlin to undergo plastic surgery on her disfigured face. In fact, the clinic seems to specialize in the correction of disfigured faces. The doctor asks Nelly which face she wants to assume while encouraging her to choose a different face, but she says she wants to regain her original face – though the precise picture of her original face seems to be lost. The theme of identity is first introduced at this point in the film. Does she want to regain her old face because it is the mark that says the nightmarish experience in a concentration camp might not have happened? Or, perhaps does she want to regain her old face because it functioned as the identifier of her being Nelly even though her life was already shattered? As she recovers from the reconstruction surgery the film shows a sequence in which two almost identical-looking persons in bandages moving around the clinic. Initially I wondered if the sequence suggests that Nelly is having an out-of-body, doppelganger experience, indicating Nelly’s psychological trauma. But rather I think it means that Nelly’s experience is not necessarily singular and many Holocaust victims suffer from scarred sense of self just like Nelly.
While the film dealt with the topic of self and self-identity, it was captivating. However, when the film waded into a realm of romantic love after the manner of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, by introducing Nelly’s husband Johnny who tries to make Nelly into his Nelly, Phoenix became a little preposterous. The scenario was not emotionally convincing to me. I did not understand why Nelly was obsessed with Johnny after witnessing his brutal and sadistic behavior toward another woman outside the cabaret Phoenix. (One may argue that Nelly is suffering from the domestic abuse victim syndrome. But, it’s not really convincing because they had been separated from each other for at least one year.) I did not understand why Nelly accepted Johnny’s insulting request to pretend that she was Nelly in order to get his former wife’s inheritance money. I did not understand why Lena, who appeared to be a strong, resolute character, shot herself. (Well, one can explain it away by saying that the filmmakers wanted to show the unpredictability of humans. But, it did not make sense in the context of the film.) But, in the end, I can say that I appreciated the film very much for its foreboding atmosphere and I think the title Phoenix is appropriate for Nelly’s story if not for the cabaret where Johnny worked as a busboy.
“Phoenix” by D.H. Lawrence
“Are you willing to be sponged out, erased, cancelled,
Are you willing to be made nothing?
dipped into oblivion?
If not, you will never really change.
The phoenix renews her youth
only when she is burnt, burnt alive, burnt down
to hot and flocculent ash.
Then the small stirring of a new small bub in the nest
with strands of down like floating ash
shows that she is renewing her youth like the eagle,