Just how much love is in your heart? This is something you will ask yourself after watching Phoenix (2015) and putting yourself in lead character, Nelly Lenz’s shoes.
Hitler’s camp has been defeated, and at a crossing in postwar Germany, we meet Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), an Auschwitz survivor, being taken by her friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), for treatment. Everyone has suffered, and Lene is among those trying to make repairs and clear a way for the future, perhaps in Palestine, where she says Jews can live freely. But however far she goes, it’s clear she cannot escape the emotional and other costs of war. They are in a bleak, damaged and edgy post World War II world, where the betrayals and losses continue to weigh heavily on everyone as they try to return to normalcy.
Directed by Christian Petzold, Phoenix dramatizes the lengths some people went through to save themselves from Nazi internment or death, and the unforeseen costs of some of those acts. For Nelly, it is a love story. In her time of deepest suffering, love is all she could cling to, and thereafter, love is all she needs.
Love makes her bold. Therefore, although she is still recovering from surgery, Nelly visits the Phoenix — a club in an area where she is told she might find her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). The Phoenix is significant in a few ways: First, it re-introduces her to more than one element of her pre-war life. Also, Nelly is a phoenix. Against all odds, she has survived the war, albeit with a new visage. It is a testimony to her character, that although she suffered greatly, she retains love in her heart, and seeks to renew old relationships. However, with a phoenix, what you cannot predict is how much of the old bird will survive the trauma of rebirth. Can it really be what it once was?
Nelly makes you want to believe it is possible. What a heart she has! Or what a love she must have known, to have clung to it so desperately, and even when a reliable source indicates, Johnny is unworthy of that love. However, like her, we have to intuit Johnny’s feelings. Besides his calculating desire for wealth, and thus a replacement wife, he hides a lot. For this we judge him, but also sympathize with him because we, too, must try to identify love, truth, and the way ahead.
The few times in the film when you have to give in and go with it are because the dialogue drags, or the plot seems questionable; but as information is revealed little by little, the premise is made strong by that recognizable but irrational desire for love, or call it hope, which makes all things possible, or at least worth an attempt.
A solid ending makes up for the film’s weak points. We are so emotionally invested at that point that when Nelly says, “speak low,” we interpret it romantically. But though we might at first misunderstand her, through Johnny we clue in. Speak low is a command, and it is a revelation. It is a blunt instrument, and it is a sultry invitation. Speak low. In the end, it is redundant. We are speechless. The moment we have waited for with Nelly, with Johnny, and with her entire circle, leaves only our pierced hearts beating irregularly as we contemplate the power of love.