Nelly, the protagonist in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix (2014), is a concentration camp survivor. She has just undergone facial reconstruction surgery and un sure of what her future holds is trying to salvage the remnants of her past. With her face wrapped in bandages and her body covered by a white hospital gown, Nelly looks at pictures of her past life as a ghost: for many, she is still presumed dead. Nelly’s cloaked appearance evokes images of horror films throughout history ; from The Invisible Man (1933) to Goodnight Mommy (2014), the ghost-like disguise has terrified audiences since the beginnings of cinema. However, the association to those phantom figures is not coincidental; haunting is rendered metaphorical on a personal and national level. When Nelly removes the bandages and catches her reflection in a mirror, she doesn’t recognize herself––nor does anybody else. Much like post-war Germany , Nelly’s battered appearance only carries glimmers of her previous self; she haunts herself just as her reappearance haunts those around her. Wherever she is, Nelly acts as a walking reminder of the country’s crimes against humanity–too horrific to face.
Petzold’s 2014 film is set amidst the rubble of post-war destruction; the nightclub “Phoenix” being the only remaining haven of escape. The film, released sixty-nine years after the end of World War II, has many aesthetic similarities to the first films produced domestically in post-war Germany; the first film of which belonged to the genre “Trümmerfilm” (Rubble Film). Trümmerfilms, as the name implies, were set in the bombed wasteland that was post-war Germany. They were a stark contrast to the overly-zealous and escapist entertainment of the Nazi regime. Instead of portraying Germany as triumphant and carefree—by way of romances and musicals–the Trümmerfilm was cinema of disillusionment. The gilded curtain was drawn back to reveal corruption, guilt, devastation, and genocide. These first films of the post-war period–supervised by the occupying powers–dealt with stories of people who, no longer blinded by the empty promises of a fascist regime, had to come to terms with their past and be held up for their crimes. This was a reflection of the fates of many as they attempted to evade this personally and publicly by assuming a new identity.
The title of the first Trümmerfilm, Murderers Among Us (1946), could very well be that of Petzold’s film. As in the earlier film, the protagonist must decide whether to expose someone they were close to as a criminal. After her surgery, Nelly is told that her husband, Johnny, betrayed her to the Nazis to escape them himself—this is not something she readily accepts. Like many Germans after the war who wanted to turn a blind eye to the past, Nelly attempts to locate Johnny to resume their life together. When she runs into Johnny, he doesn’t recognize her. Nelly begins to doubt her hopes of resuming her normal life. Johnny pulls her aside, tells her that she looks like someone he knew, and asks her to pose as his wife in order to collect Nelly’s inheritance. Nelly is devastated. The destruction the war has havocked on her marriage and appearance is irreparable. The facade can no longer be maintained, the murderer is revealed.
Nelly’s compliance to Johnny’s plan stems from hoping that he will eventually recognize her–telling him would risk being called a liar and be shut out indefinitely. Johnny “trains” Nelly to act like his wife and she is subjected to a series of tests: walking, writing, acting, and dressing. Despite Nelly’s flawless execution of each of these tests, Johnny continues to deny her true identity. When Nelly steps out from behind a very deliberately selected curtain—transformed through clothes, make-up, and hair—Johnny is speechless, he has seen the ghost. If Nelly has truly risen from the dead, he must now reckon with his guilt. Just as she couldn’t accept him as criminal, he can’t accept her as Nelly since it would mean the same–the murderers are among us.
Phoenix’s director, Christian Petzold, belonging to the “Berlin School” of filmmakers, is considered to be one of the defining voices of contemporary German cinema–one of the few that is internationally recognized. Petzold is known not just for his taut narratives, but for speaking to uniquely German issues that carry relevance in the contemporary national and international landscapes. Phoenix is his most historical film to date and paradoxically the sharpest in its contemporary critique. Petzold‘s reference to the by-gone Trümmerfilm genre conflates the past and present. The Trümmerfilm was a means of taking an unflinching look at the ramifications of war and the criminals attempting to conceal their cooperation. Although the initial films were undeniably timely when released, Petzold’s retrospective take on the genre considers the issues raised in those films as unresolved. Many German families suppress any knowledge of their ancestral ties to Nazis to this day; the topic is often rendered as taboo. In this light, Phoenix is less of a rehash than a necessary, if uncomfortable, reminder.
However, Petzold still finds ways to modernize the Trümmerfilm. Whereas the unveiled criminal in Murderers Among Us (1946) faced tangible consequences by being put on trial, the criminal in Petzold’s film faces more metaphysical repercussions. Keeping in line with the analogy of haunting and ghosts, Nelly, after metaphorically proving herself as not an apparition, but as corporeal entity, disappears into the light. Johnny is neither put on trial, nor is he shot by Nelly as an act of revenge; his punishment is emotional and existential, the way it is nationally for Germany sixty-nine years later.
The film’s domestic and international resonance only underscores the continued relevance of its subject matter and national questioning. Just as films about civil rights movements continue strike a nerve in the United States, films that revisit national traumas and regrets, such as Phoenix, can function as a political litmus test. The response generated by the media that reflects a national wound acts as a cogent indicator of a nation’s progress in regards to its healing. Phoenix is indicative of the work that still needs to be done.
Rentschler, Eric. “The Place of Rubble in the ‘Trümmerfilm.’” New German Critique, no. 110, 2010, pp. 9–30. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40926580. Accessed 28 Feb. 2021.
Brockmann, Stephen. A Critical History of German Film. Camden House, 2020.