Even for a movie, it is a curious and implausible scenario.
A German Jewish holocaust survivor returns to bombed out Berlin in search of the husband she still loves and refuses to believe betrayed her to German authorities. Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) finds her husband in the Phoenix Nightclub, but Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) fails to recognize his wife whose damaged face has been reconstructed by a plastic surgeon.
In a desperate attempt to recover the substantial inheritance of the wife he believes is dead, Johnny enlists Nelly to pose as his wife, promising they will split the inheritance and go their separate ways upon receipt of the windfall. As implausible as the storyline may be, director and screenwriter Christian Petzold, with the help of extraordinary acting, makes it work.
Petzold’s 2014 film Phoenix ends up being a masterful study of denial.
Nelly is in denial about the true nature of the man to whom she is married and about her husband’s betrayal.
Johnny is in denial about sacrificing his wife to Nazi authorities and dooming her to death, or at the very least, unimaginable suffering. He is also in denial about the horrific plot he has hatched to enrich himself from the tragic fate of the wife he believes he has sent to her death.
Nelly’s Jewish friend Lena Winter (Nina Kunzendorf) is in denial about the fantasy of building a “safe” homeland for Jews in Palestine.
Nelly’s non-Jewish friends are in denial about the role they all played as perpetrators, helpers, or merely bystanders in the slaughter of their Jewish friends and colleagues.
Phoenix offers no easy answers. Even Lena is finally forced to abandon the illusion that there might be a bright secure future for the Jews in a distant land where they hope to build a peaceful society far from violence and fear. There has been too much terror to make a simple vision of settled peace believable for anyone. The past contains too many betrayals to allow trust to rise easily from the ashes.
How do people deal with the broken realities of a painful past? How do any of us come to terms with the history of failure so graphically embodied in the decades of the 1930’s and 1940’s? Is there any way to move forward in light of the inescapable brokenness of the human community? Is it possible that Lena’s despair is the only realistic response?
These are the questions Phoenix forces the viewer to confront and refuses to resolve.
If the film hints at an answer at all, it is that the only hope may be found by those who commit themselves to seeing the truth. We must be willing to wake up, to see the painful realities of life and acknowledge whatever part we may have played in creating the circumstances that have caused the breakdown of human community.
Denial is the real enemy. The battle for the future must be fought against dishonesty and lies.
It is no mistake that the sin Jesus railed against perhaps most harshly (Matthew 23) was the sin of hypocrisy. A hypocrite is a person who pretends, who feigns a reality that in his heart he knows is not true. Hypocrisy is at its most dangerous when the hypocrite believes in his own false vision and promotes that vision in the face of clear evidence to the contrary.
The film Phoenix asks its audience to consider whether there is a way across the dangerous river of denial.
Does Nelly come to acknowledge the truth? Is she willing to embrace reality and move into the future with a clear vision? Certainly, there is no way forward if the answer is “No.”