Searching the Ashes: Post-War Scepticism in Christian Petzold’s ‘Phoenix’

This essay is by our guest writer, Harrison Hughes.

When it comes to capturing the complexities of human relationships, there are few directors as bold and profound as Christian Petzold. Born in Hilden, Germany in 1960, Petzold graduated from the German Film and Television Academy Berlin in the mid ‘90s with his debut feature Politinnen (1995). Released on German television to critical acclaim, Politinnen depicts the close relationship between two working women as they drive across Germany selling cosmetics. Although distant in age, the two women bond over their mutual exploitation and grow closer as they navigate the German landscape. With Politinnen, Petzold establishes his cinematic approach to human relationships and interactions as they develop and unfold on screen. Jump forward 19 years and nine films later, Petzold directs Phoenix (2014), his most ambitious and successful work to date.

Set in the rubble of post-war Berlin, Phoenix explores similar themes to Petzold’s early films such as the confusion of identity and the uncertainty of love, but with a much more ominous tone. The second film in his self-proclaimed “Love in Times of Oppressive Systems” trilogy, Phoenix, is not so much about love, but the distrust that surrounds it. In the wake of WW2 and its horrors, post-war society was afflicted with a great scepticism that haunted the bombed-out city streets like a spectral reminder. From religion and politics to modern civilisation and the nature of mankind, everything was questioned, and nothing remained the same. Phoenix explores this scepticism on an individual level by questioning the extent to which we can truly know ourselves, the world, and the ones we love.

The film tells the story of Nelly Lenz, a disfigured Holocaust survivor who, after receiving facial reconstruction surgery, sets off in search of her husband, Johnny, who may or may not have been involved in her arrest. Given her now uncanny appearance, when Nelly finds Johnny working at the Phoenix bar in Berlin, he takes her for a lookalike of his dead wife and devises a scheme in which she will help him claim her fortune. Rather than revealing herself, Nelly tells Johnny her name is Esther and agrees to go along with the plan in order to have any semblance of her past life. Nelly’s friend Lena warns her about continuing to meet Johnny, but she is drawn to his desire to recreate her past self, something that almost becomes a form of rehabilitation. After Lena unexpectedly commits suicide, she leaves Nelly a copy of the divorce papers Johnny signed prior to her capture – thus proving his involvement. Now aware of Johnny’s betrayal, Nelly finally reveals herself to him by exposing her prisoner number tattoo while singing in front of their friends. Shocked into silence, Johnny looks aimlessly off-screen as Nelly walks out of the frame.

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Given the film’s title, one would be forgiven for assuming that Nelly is the Phoenix who rises from the ashes at the end of the film. While certainly attractive, this metaphor is somewhat reductive, and the film is best seen as an exploration of post-war scepticism in the immediate aftermath of the war. Petzold himself has stated that the title actually refers to Germany’s post-war economic miracle and therefore such a reading somewhat diminishes Nelly’s experience and character development. Nelly is faced with scepticism concerning her identity, her marriage, her country, and her faith, all of which stem from her imprisonment at the hands of the Nazis. Wandering the war-torn streets of Berlin, Nelly searches the ashes of the city she once called home for any trace of the life she once knew. Despite her suspicions, her meetings with Johnny are a way of negotiating her scepticism and coming to terms with the person she was and has become. This is why the film’s ending is so powerful. Nelly finally regains her voice – she was a singer before her arrest – and in a moment of emotional expression reveals her prisoner number tattoo as a marker of her true identity.

It is additionally significant that the audience never meets Nelly before her arrest, as her character development is one of new beginnings as opposed to a rebirth. Being reborn would mean being cleansed of the horrors she witnessed and the violence she endured. Instead, Nelly learns that she must confront the past in order to move forward. Any attempt to shy away would be to succumb to its darkness. Faced with scepticism, Nelly goes further into the past in order to reconcile with the present. There is no happy ending for Nelly and the audience is left wondering whether she will remain in Germany or move to Palestine as was her original plan with Lena before her suicide. In its reflection of post-war scepticism, therefore, Phoenix teaches its audience that scepticism is not something we can overcome, we can only learn to live with it and not be defined by its uncertainty.

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