Christian Petzold’s Phoenix: A Classical Connection

I enjoyed writing about Phoenix for Camden House’s German Film Classics series as much as I have ever enjoyed a writing project. The film’s director, Christian Petzold, who is a cinephile and an avid reader of literature, introduced a vast number of literary works and intertexts into his film. References to these many works – some direct, others indirect; some intentional, others unintentional – are to be found on every page of the film’s screenplay, which he co-authored with Harun Farocki, as well as in the film’s production design, which includes echoes of films such as Vertigo, Dark Passage, and The Marriage of Maria Braun. On close reading, every sequence of Phoenix produces new discoveries. I tried to make my study of the film a record of those discoveries and their implications, looking particularly at how the original source material changes meaning as it passes through the director’s lens. However, not every one of these discoveries made their way into the book.

The figure of Phoenix comes to us from antiquity. This undying bird of Greek mythology repeatedly returns to life even after having been reduced to ashes. In this case, many connections readily present themselves: Nelly (Nina Hoss), a Holocaust survivor who returns to Berlin at the start of Petzold’s film despite having been left for dead by the Nazis, is, to be sure, a kind of Phoenix. Yet Petzold has disputed that this was his intended meaning, suggesting instead that it was really the city of Berlin more than the Holocaust survivor that was rising from the ashes.[1] Insofar as Nazi violence reduced many human beings to ashes and the war turned many cities to ruins and rubble, more than one manner of postwar renewal could be described as “Phoenix-like.” But if we do not view Nelly as the Phoenix referred to by the film’s title, might we see her in relation to other classical figures who have risen from the dead, and what can we learn from such comparisons?

At the film’s onset, Nelly’s friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) retrieves her from the East, where the perpetrators had wounded her badly and left her for dead. With an eye to this act of retrieval, scholars of the classics might turn their attentions to Euripides’s play Alcestis, dated to 438 BC, in which Heracles retrieves the princess Alcestis from Hades. Alcestis had taken on the fate of her husband Admetus, king of Pherae, offering to die in his stead. Having offered to retrieve Alcestis as an act of atonement for having behaved boorishly in Admetus’s home, Heracles returns the princess to her husband, wrestling her away from Death and delivering her to the household, where, almost precisely like Nelly upon her return to Berlin, her face is covered, and she is temporarily mute. In the period of mourning and during her transition back to life, Alcestis is described as belonging to neither the realm of the living nor that of the dead.

Alcestis resurfaces in twentieth-century German literature in the East German playwright Heiner Müller’s “Description of a Picture” (Bildbeschreibung; 1984), a prose piece intended for the stage. Müller’s Alcestis is a ghost – a hauntress, or an ethereal figure who stands in for something repressed or forgotten. Müller describes a drawing that was given to him by a student in Bulgaria, and his description centers on the woman featured in it, who, after a storm, seems to have risen from the grave.[2] The woman in the picture, who Müller identifies as Alcestis, appears to have been the victim of a violent murder, perhaps a victim of multiple murders, and she returns to revisit violence upon her perpetrators. Elements of Müller’s description could surely apply to Nelly in Phoenix insofar as Nelly has returned in the wake of a catastrophe – in this case, the Holocaust – her face literally awash in blood. Müller refers to his Alcestis as “the Mata Hari of the netherworld.” Coming back to life is depicted as incurring, for those who are resurrected, a debt to those less fortunate, those who remain dead.

But images of Phoenixes, these mythical birds returned to life, are rarely accompanied by references to others who have died. Phoenixes are typically independent, rising from the ashes on their own. A separate fragment by Heiner Müller entitled “Phoenix” (1986) hints at yet another reason why Phoenix might have been an apt title for Petzold and Farocki’s film. As is consistent with Müller’s often epochal scale of time, as well as his tendency to sediment dramatic motifs upon one another from an array of timeframes including antiquity, he describes a Phoenix climbing out from its ashes ([er] aufsteigt aus seiner Asche), and his description approximates the translated German title of Hubert Monteilhet’s 1961 novel Return from the Ashes – the novel that served as a key source text for Petzold’s Phoenix – which is Der Asche entstiegen.[3] Müller’s fragment contains the claim that the Phoenix “does not forget the dead and warms the unborn.”[4] This Phoenix, like Müller’s Alcestis, returns to the earth with a debt. The bird has likewise incurred an obligation to others in the moment of its anabasis, its return to the world of the living. That debt is something that Holocaust survivors frequently grapple with: why did I survive and what do I owe the many victims who did not? Nelly, in Petzold’s film, arguably draws a conclusion at the film’s end about the extent to which her rebirth leaves her tethered and obligated to others, not least to her friend Lene, who retrieved her, and who became a casualty of the Holocaust even after the war has come to an end.

Yet Petzold has said that he did not intend for Nelly to be understood as his film’s Phoenix. Moreover, it can hardly be said that Nelly, shattered by her experiences, returns to Berlin in possession of extraordinary or supernatural powers. If she is a Phoenix, her wings are weighted down by substantial burdens, and it is only at the film’s very end that she finds the strength to take flight. Though Nelly perhaps awakens with a debt to those who were left behind – and she may even eventually be said to avenge herself on her perpetrators – Petzold’s titular Phoenix, steeped as it is in a varied and remarkable range of sources and ideas, seems to be a distinctive breed of bird.

[1] In his interview with Neil Young (“The Past is Not Myself,” Sight & Sound 25.6 [June 2015]: 38-41), Petzold says, “The Germans after the war kept talking about ‘zero’, our ‘Year Zero’ – they are the ‘Phoenix,’ I think. They said, ‘Everything is destroyed, now we are stronger than before.’ This is the Phoenix myth, I think. This is why the film has the title ‘Phoenix’ – it’s not Nelly. Nelly is no Phoenix” (41).

[2] For a facsimile of Emilia Kolewa’s pen and ink drawing, see Heiner Müller Handbuch. Leben – Werk – Wirkung, ed. Hans-Thies Lehmann and Patrick Primavesi (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 2003), 121.

[3] Heiner Müller, “Phönix,” in Heiner Müller, Material: Texte und Kommentare, ed. Frank Hörnigk (Göttingen: Steidl, 1989), 109.

[4] Müller, “Phönix,” 109.

This guest post was written by BRAD PRAGER, the Catherine Paine Middlebush Chair of Humanities and Professor of German at the University of Missouri.

By Brad Prager
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