The Great Movies, Episode 15: Phoenix (2014)

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Phoenix (2014) Christian Petzold
Criterion Blu-ray (1:38)
The Great Movies series, Severna Park Library, Severna Park, Maryland

There are few things in life I love more than introducing a good – maybe even great – film to someone who’s never seen it before, someone whom I think will appreciate and tell others about it. In many ways, I have the best job in the world since I’m able to share two of my passions with people: reading and movies. I had the opportunity last night to screen Christian Petzold’s Phoenix (2014) to a group of 30 people. You never quite know until it’s over whether the audience will like a film, especially when you’re showing an international film with subtitles. Would they like Phoenix? Did they like it?

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If you’ve never seen it, Phoenix is the story of a concentration camp survivor named Nelly (Nina Hoss) who has suffered massive damage to her face, so much so that she needs surgery. She wants to look just like her former self, but both her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) and her doctor encourage her to take on a new look. Nelly simply wants to return to some sense of normalcy in Berlin with her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), but Lene tells her that Johnny is the one who betrayed her to the Nazis.

Everything I discuss from this point will be filled with SPOILERS, so please see the movie before reading further. (It’s currently streaming on Netflix.)

I introduced the film briefly, telling the audience that the Kurt Weill song “Speak Low” runs throughout the film and quoted a couple of lines from the lyrics:

Time is so old and love so brief

Love is pure gold and time a thief

I also mentioned that Weill escaped Nazi Germany in 1933, living in Paris, London, and finally New York. The song speaks to the quest for love and its ultimate decay.

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After the film, I spoke briefly before opening the floor for questions and comments. I related how the film can be taken metaphorically, but also stands as a tremendous story in its own right. I knew that some – like many critics did – would have issues with the film’s believability, primarily that Johnny wouldn’t recognize Nelly as Nelly. I told them that I believed that Johnny was so self-absorbed and so devoted to his scheme that he – like many of the German people at that time – literally couldn’t see what was going on right in front of him. I think most of the audience was in agreement.

Yet some interesting thoughts came up from the audience. I don’t think anyone was ready to excuse what Johnny did, but at least a couple of people mentioned that we never get much of Johnny’s point of view. One audience member (whom I know as a history professor) mentioned that what Johnny did in trying to get Nelly’s money was probably not uncommon and while he shouldn’t evoke our sympathy, it’s difficult for us as Americans in 2017 to fully understand his actions. There are scenes when Johnny speaks harshly to Nelly (or as she’s calling herself in his presence, Esther), but we wonder how he treated her before Auschwitz.

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Another audience member speculated on Lene’s motivation, suspecting that she was in love with Nelly and wanted her to escape with her because Lene was in love with her. That could play an important role in Lene’s suicide late in the film when she realizes that Nelly fully intends to go back with Johnny. It seems, however, that she would at least wait until she had seen Nelly’s reaction to the documentation of Johnny’s betrayal before taking her own life.

Many audience members echoed my undying praise of Nina Hoss’s performance as Nelly, a tremendous showcase of acting. Here’s a character who’s trying to wrestle with her own shell-shocked emotions, attempting to rediscover herself while pretending to be someone else pretending to be Nelly. How many times does Nelly almost tell Johnny who she is? How in the world does she hold it together? How does she not betray herself with her voice, her walk, her eyes? She has to give Johnny enough information in order for him to think she can become Nelly without giving herself away. It’s a tremendous performance that becomes even more impressive the more you examine it.

And then there’s the ending, which I told the audience is the quietest, most powerful ending I’ve ever seen. One person said that was the best payoff they’d ever seen in a movie. Others mentioned that they would see the movie again just to see the ending. Personally I love how Nelly takes charge, telling Johnny “Speak Low” as they enter the room that houses the piano. She’s tentative with her singing at first, uncertain. Johnny has to repeat the intro several times. We don’t know what’s going through Johnny’s head at this point, but I think he’s hoping that she’s going to break down and have a highly emotional moment that will evoke sympathy from the gathered friends and family, further reinforcing the facade that he’s the good guy here. But Nina finds strength, whether from the music or inside herself. It’s a tremendous moment as she stumbles/whispers/speaks through the first verse, then quietly soars. That one moment where we see the numbers tattooed on her arm and Johnny’s stunned reaction to it is truly one of the great reveals in movie history. He’s absolutely done, he can’t keep playing and can’t even look up. You have to wonder what the people in that room are going to ask him after Nelly walks out. What’s he going to say? What can he say? Nelly has truly risen from the ashes, triumphant.

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I asked everyone if they liked the movie and overwhelmingly they told me they did. I said, “Please do me a favor, then. The movie is streaming on Netflix. Please, please tell a friend or family member to watch this film.”

I’m not ashamed to say that it brings tears to my eyes each time I think about the film’s ending and its implications. I absolutely love this movie. And l love sharing it – and other great films – with people. That’s what our Great Movies program at the Severna Park Library is all about.

Photos: Dale M. Pollock, Tablet Magazine, CineFiles Movie Reviews

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One thought on “The Great Movies, Episode 15: Phoenix (2014)

  1. Pingback: Movies Watched in March 2017 Part I | Journeys in Darkness and Light

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