Monday, August 10, 2015

Christian Petzold | Phoenix

the curtain descends
by Douglas Messerli

Christian Petzold and Harun Farocki (screenplay, based on a fiction by Hubert Monteilhet), Christian Petzold (director) Phoenix / 2014, 2015 USA

We're late,
Darling we're late

The curtain descends,
Everything ends
Too soon, too soon
I wait,
Darling i wait
When you speak low to me,
Speak love to me and soon

    —from “Speak Low” with lyrics by Ogden Nash and music by Kurt Weill

Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), is a Jewish singer has just been saved from Auschwitz, and after reconstructive surgery upon her face (she has been shot, evidently at the last moments of internment), is encouraged by her loyal friend, Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf) to join her in Palestine to help create a new Jewish state. Certainly, Lene, who has apparently waited out the war in Switzerland, seems to assert that there is no future for them in the haunted world of Berlin, where they previously lived.

     While Nelly heals in Berlin, Lene continues to look into the survival and whereabouts of Nelly’s family and friends, explaining to her that since every family member has been killed in the camps, she will come into a sizable fortune, held by the Allies, but which she can retrieve only if she is willing to move to Palestine.

     Nelly, a near shell of a being, emptied of emotional response and even the ability to once again look like her former self (the doctor has warned her that her desire to look as she did before surgery could never truly be achieved), is clearly psychologically unable to move forward, and responds vacantly to Lene’s new plans and pictures of the apartments she proposes in Haifa or Tel Aviv. Nelly, after all, has survived her internment, in part, by focusing on her love for her husband, Johnny, a Christian who was not imprisoned. Despite Lene’s suggestion that it was he who betrayed her to the Nazis, revealing where she was hiding, and Lene’s revelation that she has seen Johnny, who is now attempting to get hold of Nelly’s money, presuming she has died in the camp, Nelly is determined to reconnect.
      Because she now has to identity in the present, Nelly cannot leave her past, and seeks out her husband, quickly discovering that the ex-pianist is now working as a waiter in a cabaret in the American zone, the Phoenix—its very title a symbol of the post-War German desire to rise immediately out of its ashes.

      Hoss plays Nelly as an almost will-less being, robbed the first night she roams the street by a thug—also named Johnny—who has just raped another woman. The very next evening, daring to enter the cabaret, Nelly is sexually approached by a young American soldier, evidently mistaking her for a prostitute he was to meet. The management quickly throws her out of the establishment, since it is apparent she has no credentials or permission to ply her wares in the bar. But Johnny, now going under the name Johannes, without actually recognizing her, sees just enough of a likeness in her to his wife, that he recuses her, taking her to his hovel of a room, and offering her the back room if she will help him in an elaborate plot to imitate his former wife, returned from the camps, so that we can get his hands on her money, part of which he is willing to share with his new protégé. 
      When he reencounters the woman he has salvaged, witnessing her lifeless shuffle and spectre-like stare, he almost calls off the whole affair. Only her pleas to allow her to try to learn how behave as his now dead lover, wins her more time.
     As hard as it may be to believe Johnny’s inability to recognize Nelly, who reports her name  is Esther (“There aren’t many Esthers left,” quips Johannes), and as equally difficult as it is to imagine what she ever saw in this greedy brute, we become, nonetheless, engrossed by his attempts to makeover Esther into the Nelly she formerly was.
     It’s only if one perceives this effort as a kind of metaphorical relationship, or—as with Vertigo’s Scottie Ferguson’s attempt to transform the ordinary working girl, Judy, back into the beautifully sophisticated Madeline Elster—a delusional condition that cannot permit the would-be magician to see the truth. Petzold presents it almost as a game of cat and mouse, as each for his or her own reasons, pretends—Johnny because he is so desperate to deny the past and to create a new world severed from it, Nelly because she is seeking a regeneration and is  desperate to find explain the events that nearly killed her.

      Forcing Esther to write out shopping lists in order to imitate Nelly’s handwriting, and dressing her in Nelly’s old shoes and in dresses similar to those Nelly wore (her former clothing was all burned), Johannes keeps his Pygmalion under lock and key so that she will not encounter any of his or Nelly’s former friends. When Nelly does briefly escape to make contact, once again, with Lene, she is met with Lene’s deep anger for her imagining that she might “forgive” the events that led her to be interred. Lene will have nothing to do with Nelly’s attempt to retrieve the past, and gives her a gun which might help protect herself from the present world in which she haunts like some ghost. To paraphrase Chekov, “if you introduce a gun early in a play, you better make sure it’s used before the end.” We wonder, obviously, how this absurd charade will end.
     In this early scene it also becomes apparent that Lene’s caring and kindness toward Nelly may go further than that of friendship, that, in fact, she is seeking a deeper relationship with Nelly in their future in Palestine. As with most elements of this movie, Petzold never openly expresses this possibility, but we are forced to puzzle out the film’s truths, a bit like a detective story with no reliable investigator, in order to comprehend what Nelly, apparently, refuses to.  
    Soon after, when Nelly attempts to visit to Lene once again, she discovers that Lene has committed suicide, in a letter to her friend expressing the impossibility of now going forward into the future. With the letter is a document, a divorce decree Johnny evidently signed shortly after Nelly’s arrestment. Not only has he betrayed her to the Nazis, but has attempted to wipe away all his connections to her.
     Esther, however, has gone too far to end the charade, and further plots with Johannes on how to return to Berlin, where he with a few of their former friends will greet her at the train, thus confirming Nelly’s return from the dead.

    When, now, Esther expresses her doubts about her ability to undertake the “deception” by asking, “won’t they ask me all sorts of questions about my life in the camp? What am I to say?” Johannes assures her that they will not be interested at all in the camp, but simply will be amazed and delighted in her return. He even predicts how each them will behave, one them coming forward before the others, another calling her “Little Nelly,” another complaining of like in Berlin. In short, these new Germans, all former collaborators if not Nazis themselves, will, like him, attempt wipe away the past, secure in the fact that together (given their unvarying identities) they will create a new future that will simply erase the old—precisely, one must recall, what historically almost happened in post-war Germany.
      But Johannes finally crosses the line, we might say, when he suggests that he will have to scar Esther’s arm so that she might pretend to have her concentration camp number cut away! She rejects any such attempt, refusing him entry to the bathroom as she begins to make up and dress for the dramatized reunion.

     Following his careful instructions, Esther, now Nelly again, walks forward from the train, briefly greeting all of her old friends, who express their absolute delight in seeing her again. She walks to Johannes, now her Johnny once more, and, just as he has instructed her, places her head upon his shoulder, waits, and, on cure, joins the others for a celebratory lunch.
     During lunch Nelly says very little, while the others murmur on as if there had been no horrific past from which their friendly revenant has returned. Clearly exhausted by their meaningless chatter, Nelly invites them inside for a brief recital, whispering to Johnny that he should play the Kurt Weill song, “Speak Low.”
     She begins the song almost as Marlene Dietrich might, in Sprechstimme, before gradually moving, timorously, into a sung melody, finally employing a fuller voice. As Johnny hears the singing, he gradually begins to recognize his blindness, and, ultimately ceases his accompaniment: this Nelly and his former wife are one and the same. Looking up, he (along with Petzold’s camera) notices the concentration camp number stamped across Nelly’s upper arm. 
     Nelly quietly finishes the song, which begs the lover to speak of his love quickly before it disappears, and quickly walks out of the room—and out of her own past, leaving those within to face the frightful past of their own creation.
     Phoenix makes no grand claims for speaking of the entire German Nazi legacy, but by focusing upon a single being, makes it clear that no matter how the survivors—both those who committed the atrocities and those who permitted them—may attempt to forgot what has occurred, there will be others who will never permit that amnesia. Any love they may have wished to express has indeed come far “too late.”   

Los Angeles, August 10, 2015

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