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The Schmooze

Christian Petzold Reflects on His Holocaust Revenge Film, ‘Phoenix’

Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix,” a beautifully crafted film noir, is one of two relatively recent Holocaust-related films that showcases revenge exacted with gusto by Jewish women characters — the other being Quentin Tarantino’s gory 2009 World War II action flick, ”Inglourious Basterds.”

A fascinating, welcome addition to the post WWII cinema arena, “Phoenix” is an unfolding mystery about a once chic German Jewish nightclub star exquisitely portrayed by Nina Hoss. Her minutely nuanced performance alludes to her concentration camp sojourn as she returns to bombed out 1945 “Third Man” aura post war Berlin.

Traumatized, her face swathed in bandages, she undergoes reconstructive surgery as a result of concentration camp mutilation. During my chat with German writer and film director Petzold, I mentioned that I had the feeling that the character Nelly was imagining the smirky surgeon was a Dr. Mengele persona. Petzold responded: “I actually referred to a photo from the Shoah Foundation — one of the hardest to watch — of three cigarette-smoking [Auschwitz] German doctors laughing during surgery.”

“What was your motivation for the story line? “ I asked apropos Nelly’s decision to jettison her plan to go to Palestine and to remain in Berlin to seek out her husband Johnny— intensely portrayed by Ronald Zehrfeld — who may or may not have betrayed her.

“We have no post-war stories about coming home,” said Petzold. **There are so many post war displaced persons — no one is telling their stories. So many movies with Nazi uniforms — not movies from survivors.

Americans made some coming home stories…how hard it is to come back into society… In Germany after 1968 we didn’t want to see problems.”

Petzold alluded to Kurt Weill’s musical “One Touch of Venus” inspired by the Pygmalion myth. My spin was that Johnny was no Pygmalion, Nelly was no Galatea. Johnny—who did not recognize Nelly as his wife—saw in this shattered survivor a “resemblance” that he, as a Svengali, could craftily transform from table manners, to dress, to hairstyle with the payoff being his “dead” wife’s fortune.

I asked Petzold about the soundtrack choice of Kurt Weill’s/Ogden Nash 1943 hit ”Speak Low” from “One Touch of Venus” for the opening theme as well as the musical pulse throughout the film. He told me that American music was popular and that “in the 1930’s there was a Jewish combo that made a translation of Cole Porter’s music [which] we tried to include in the cabaret setting.” When I asked about the vignettes of two raunchy zaftig women in a montage right out of the musical “Cabaret,” he said it was based on an actual act. “All that was lost in 1933.” Nelly’s triumph is a film moment to savor. Go see.

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