Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Phoenix - E's essay

Phoenix is about surviving the war and worse, and, we are not quite in Kafka, about finding a way out of the mess and damage, indeed, finding out who you are, now, under radically changed circumstances. The "identity" of the three main characters in Phoenix remains open, due to what has happened. They are actually in search of who they are and can be. The issue of "identity" and its uncertainty is established with the first scene, when an American soldier, the reigning power, is checking the passengers, including Nellie, badly wounded and with a bandaged head. He doesn't trust the wrapping, he wants to see beyond the bandage, wants to see the face, and then, after the initial forceful bluster and command of the situation, is promptly forced to mumble a brief word of apology, and so the Leitmotiv of the movie is introduced. How can, how does one respond to the evidence of what has happened? The soldier can afford to limit his response; he is so to speak an innocent observer. How much more difficult must it be for an accomplice to look the truth in the face, let alone find any kind of response, ever inadequate?

There is no doubt that the film does not flesh out a lot of things, e.g. the pressure to divorce a Jewish spouse, or the mass migration, the millions, literally, of displaced persons fleeing the East at the end of the war, of which this Nellie lookalike might be one. In addition the film presents the story in an opaque way which requires filling in all kinds of motivation, e.g. in the case of Lene's seemingly sudden suicide (which actually is prepared by her expressing her bottomless disgust at Nellie and by her literally final proclamation: da mach ich nicht mit--I am not going to be part of it, namely of any kind of accommodation--but what is left then?). The film also requires a certain willing suspension of disbelief--at the latest since Oedipus slept with his mother without knowing it we might as well assume the unlikely, otherwise we have problems, not only with Michelangelo's painting of God's finger. Film may be a medium eminently suited for a realistic depiction of the world, and it may be fooling us into thinking that it on occasion succeeds, but it is not any more bound to notions of verisimilitude than any other art.

Johnny's denial of the obvious is implausible but I take it as an indication of the depth, the strength of his feeling guilty. He cannot, again the topic, face the truth. It is safer, for his own psychological survival, to assume that his wife perished than to acknowledge that she returned from the dead, from hell where he had helped send her. His relationship to the lookalike Nellie is based on the conviction, firmly held against all evidence (the hand-writing!) that this cannot be Nellie. He begins his new life by trying to destroy his file (from which Lene learns that he divorced Nellie, presumably under pressure and in accordance with Nurnberg Laws) and now wants to be Johann, thinking he can bury the culpable Johnny. It is another fine touch that Johann is the busboy in the new order, employed to clean up.

Lene doesn't understand Nellie, Nellie doesn't understand Johnny, and Johnny refuses to understand what is in front of him--and we, in the end, sit almost if not quite as speechless as Nellie's audience: how does one acknowledge, how does one talk about the unspeakable? Lene wants a complete break with the past and falters at the enormity of the task, of finding a way out (she is deeply helpless, if that is even the right word, given the difference from other forms of helplessness, e.g. that of Nellie's seemingly comfortable in-laws at the end who, just as Johnny, cannot find any words); Johnny wants to pretend that what happened doesn't matter "going forward" with a new identity; he is, for good reasons, more comfortable in attempting, for authenticity's sake, to erase a number that he assumes is not there than to face the number that confirms what would condemn him. And Nellie also wants the impossible, her old face back, wants to be recognized as the woman she no longer is--the number is there, and if it were erased there would be a scar. (Ruth Kluger, a colleague, has an essay trying to explain why, after decades, she decided to have the number erased.)

And then one can of course argue that the film is all too obvious, from Nellie's bandaged head to her learning to walk and talk and even sing, finding her voice (there is a youtube clip of that immensely moving, spell-binding effort), and that specifically the film's ending is actually a cop-out: instead of walking into the sunset Nellie surfaces into the bright light which, metaphor to the end, dissolves her.

Ida, a film from Poland, goes in a different direction. Ida's understanding of who she is, is quite settled and only intermittently, not fundamentally, challenged, let alone denied and destroyed. Ida learns a fact about herself that is at odds with her life--and decides to stick with her life: identity is not in the blood but in our upbringing--and what others make of one which is why Lene rejects Nellie's claim of not being Jewish. More briefly: for Ida return is an option; not so for the persons in Phoenix.

"Barbara" and "Ida" are next, and "Two Lives" is yet another exploration of identity, with Norway, luminous and rainy, and the grey GDR as locales ...

All the best und nichts fuer ungut--may the day stay reasonably sunny.

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