Book Review: Phoenix by Brad Prager

Phoenix, Brad Prager, German Film Classics: Camden House 2019, ISBN 9781640140387, £12.99, 88pp, 40 colour illus

This is the third ‘German Film Classic Guide’ we have received from Camden House. Earlier guides reviewed on this blog have been Wings of Desire and Fitzcarraldo.

My first reaction on reading this title was to wonder if a film can become a ‘film classic’ after only five years. Not that this observation worried me much since there are at least three blog entries on the film on this blog. I reviewed the film when it appeared at the London Film Festival, and both Keith Withall and Rona Murray discussed the film on its release. There is little doubt that Christian Petzold is the most successful of the so-called ‘Berlin School’ of contemporary German filmmakers. It is his films that are selected for international festivals and which tend to receive releases in film markets around the world – something increasingly difficult for many European auteurs these days. Most of Petzold’s successful films have seen him working with Nina Hoss as his leading player and Phoenix is the film on which they last worked together.

It might be worth offering a brief note about Phoenix first as this guide sticks very close to the text and assumes familiarity with the film. Nina Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, who we first see with her head swathed in bandages being driven by her friend Lene through an American checkpoint on her way back to Berlin in September 1945. Later we will learn that Nelly was a well-known singer before the war, but her Jewish heritage meant she was taken to Auschwitz. Somehow she escaped, but was shot in the face. Lene is driving her to meet a plastic surgeon who will re-construct her face. Lene then hopes that Nelly will accompany her to Palestine. However, Nelly hopes to find her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) and when she is recovered she begins a search. ‘Phoenix’ is the name of a nightclub attracting Americans in Berlin. The film is loosely adapted from a novel by Hubert Monteilhet, Return to the Ashes (1961), which sets the narrative in France. J. Lee Thompson made an English language film adaptation in 1965 featuring Ingrid Thulin and Maximilian Schell.

Brad Prager is Professor of German and Film Studies at the University of Missouri and he opens his guide by reminding us that Petzold co-wrote Phoenix with his old friend and mentor Harun Farocki. It was Farocki who suggested that the opening shots of the film should recall Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film The Killers [from the Hemingway short story] in which two contract killers are in a car at night searching for a man. Prager refers to Petzold’s comment about Siodmak as a Jewish German migrant in Hollywood, having fled the Nazis in the early 1930s. Siodmak carried with him that sense of being a persecuted exile when he returned to Germany after the war and Petzold sees Nelly as experiencing the same kind of feeling. Siodmak was one of the German directors identified as developing Hollywood films noirs and Petzold has said that film noir was the genre he thought about most in his preparation. He suggests that just as Fassbinder went back to the films of Douglas Sirk when he made his melodramas such as Fear Eats the Soul (1974), he, Petzold needed to go back to the films noirs of the 1940s and to directors such as Siodmak.

Prager offers us a very close reading of the film which I certainly found illuminating, especially in terms of the connections he finds to wider examples of German culture and particularly German Jewish culture. This means he explores similar films made both about 1945 and made in the immediate few months after the war and tracks the links to Jewish figures such as Kurt Weil, whose song ‘Speak Low’ plays a significant role in the film. As well as Robert Siodmak, he also refers to his screenwriter brother Curt/Kurt and to the Central European Jewish actor Peter Lorre. Prager’s first task is to demonstrate to us that Nelly experiences a a strong sense of dislocation in these first few months of what is a period of ‘limbo’ for German identity. Germany at this point simply doesn’t exist – it is an occupied territory. Nelly wants to re-discover her own German identity and her husband will fail to recognise her even though her new face will not be that different – it is more that he is incapable of seeing her. I know something about this period in Berlin but I learned a great deal more from Prager’s analysis. The real question, however, is who is the target readership for this guide?

I suspect that the intended readership is German studies students taking a film option. There are several other study guide series which deal with a specific ‘National Cinema’ through individual texts on key films. Readers need a certain investment in that National Cinema to get the most from the guides. The downside is that such guides don’t always suit the more general Film Studies student. One missing element for me was a sense of the German cinema audience. Checking the Lumière Database for European films I discovered that Phoenix had a smaller audience overall than Barbara (2012), the previous film by Petzold featuring both Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld. Not only did Phoenix have little more than half the audience of the previous film (530,000 across Europe) but the biggest audience was in France. Barbara, set in East Germany in the 1980s, attracted 1.05 million admissions across Europe and did, just, attract a larger audience in Germany. Prager does perhaps suggest reasons why this might be the case, but I don’t think he addresses what it means for German Cinema. But that’s the only disappointment for me in the analysis. What is the book like as a study guide?

As our other reviewers have pointed out, these are quite attractive guides in terms of presentation, especially since they use digital screengrabs nicely presented in colour. The A5 size is fairly standard for these little guides. In this case the text is presented in an attractive font, but the pages have small margins and the text is fully justified. There are no line spaces between paragraphs and the entire guide is divided into just four sections, corresponding to the linear progress of the narrative of the film. Each section is separated by just a couple of line spaces (rather than a new page). The overall effect is of a solid block of 80 pages of text enlivened only by the illustrations (which thankfully are used relatively frequently). All of this does make the text feel less accessible than it should be. Worse, however, is that there is no index as such, but instead seven pages of endnotes in lieu and a page of credits. The guide is printed on good quality paper, but these seeming cost-saving features rather undercut the overall quality appeal.

Brad Prager is an expert guide having written widely on German cinema and on that basis I would recommend this guide, but I hope Camden House re-consider their design for the series.

2 comments

  1. keith1942

    I was interested in Roy’s investigation of the German box office. I really liked this the most of the films of Petzold that I have seen. However, here, in a sub-titled version, the title divided people I spoke to more than the earlier titles. I did not really get to the point of what people found unsatisfactory though I did feel for some that the way the title revisited earlier English-language titles was a problem. The obvious example is Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’. I wondered if the guide discusses that parallel.

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    • Roy Stafford

      Yes it does, in some detail and making use of matching screengrabs showing similar compositions and framings. There is also discussion of other films noirs, especially those by German directors such as Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) and Robert Siodmak’s The Phantom Lady (1944).

      Like

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