Back in the High Life
by ALEX CARNEVALE
dir. Christian Petzold
Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) survives a concentration camp, but not without substantial disfigurement in the face region. Even though most survivors decided to flee Europe in droves, Nelly is the exception. What distinguishes her from all her compadres is that she had a very attractive husband: Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld).
After the war Johnny found work at a busboy at a club named Phoenix. The place is pretty gross, full of American soldiers looking for prostitutes and low production values on all of the singing numbers. When Johnny sees his wife after so much facial surgery he doesn’t recognize her at all, but he sees to the resemblance to the wife he betrayed to the Gestapo. He has learned that Nelly stands to inherit millions from wealthy relatives as a result of the war, and convinces his wife to portray his wife in a scheme that will net him millions and her a cool $20,000.
$20,000 in 1942 would be a neat $300,000 today. There is a continuing suggestion by individuals that the world is getting worse, but Phoenix reminds us that in some important ways it is getting substantially better. The film also presents the Jewish question in no uncertain terms. “Why would you want to come back here?” a doctor asks Nelly about her return to Germany.
It is a valid question with a valid answer. Nelly’s friend Lene has found her accomodations in Israel, in Haifa or Tel Aviv, but Nelly refuses to leave Germany. Lene is a strong Zionist, and Phoenix spends considerable time and energy explaining the necessity of a Jewish state. Of course, this was never something given by anyone to the Jews. There were reparations to some Jews for what they lost during the war, but most never received a thing, including help establishing the nation-state that would serve as their stronghold against a virulently anti-Semitic world.
Like many Jews, Nelly does not even consider herself to be one. Her husband Johnny, however, did. When the Gestapo took him into custody and asked him to reveal his wife’s whereabouts in return for his own freedom, he told them that she was hiding in a hidden compartment of a boat.
As her husband unknowingly embroils his actual wife in a scheme to convincingly portray what he believes is his deceased wife, she tries to get to him explain that he had no choice but to give her up, or that he had done it unknowingly. To Johnny’s credit, he never bothers to lie about this.
German filmmaker Christian Petzold received various forms of blowback for the presentation of his country in Phoenix. Unlike other German efforts depicting the moral crises of the time, he never bothers to show off Germans innocent of the crimes of the Third Reich. Every single person Nelly knew is culpable and complicit in Johnny’s plan to defraud her estate of millions. Even Johnny, when pressed by Nelly to excuse himself from the complicity in her capture, declines. It is very difficult to be knowingly dishonest about annihilation.
Lene continues to beg Nelly to leave Johnny alone, knowing that no good can come of their association. She gives her friend a revolver, explaining “sometimes it is just enough to show it”, subtly suggesting that if she were to kill Johnny for what he did to her, he would deserve it.
There are many people who are similarly afraid of violence, or believe it never has the capacity to touch them. These well-meaning individuals are convinced that eliminating the tools of violence are enough to prevent people from harming each other. They argue that other things in our society cause murder — video games, television, lack of psychiatric treatment for the mentally ill. They are mistaken.
Without handguns or weapons of any kind, the Nazis still would have been what they were, Phoenix argues so persuasively, in a way that is entirely unique to Holocaust cinema. The film itself never shows anything more shocking than a sob or a muted scream. That is horrifying enough. In an interview with Film Comment Petzold described the plight of a German attorney who remembered the Nazis coming into a courtroom, asking each person there whether or not they were a Jew. “Not a Jew,” he told them, in the moment he committed his first crime.
Although its plot is most similar to Vertigo, Petzold smartly stays away from any more specific allusions to Hitchcock’s genre. Phoenix never takes many twists or turns, but this is as it should be. Instead the film brings out one overriding emotion at length, like the prolongation of a single musical note. When the music finally crests, nothing’s left.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.