By Gabriel Gassmann, News Dept. Staff
It is not too much of a stretch to view all of history as a desperate attempt to change what has happened in the past. Both in war and in peace, the essential goal of all of humanity has essentially remained the same: to correct past wrongs; to gain what is rightfully one’s own; to ensure that one’s offspring will never have to endure the hardships endured by preceding generations– in essence, to ensure that justice prevails. Therefore, if the human race didn’t have, by and large, a warped and self-centered sense of justice, we would live in a paradise.
But justice is a hard thing to comprehend in the midst of fear, poverty, and ignorance– and no one has ever rid themselves completely of all three afflictions. Everyone, whether consciously or subconsciously, cannot accept the fact that it is their lot to live and die in ultimate anonymity and meaninglessness. And so, in a situation in which this is the undeniable reality, a scapegoat must be found: the mistakes of the past must be corrected, and the rightful champions– the I, the all-important self– must be known and respected.
And thus history repeats itself. Each generation brings with it a new crop of heroes who come to the forefront in order to provide for themselves, and each following generation comes along to destroy those heroes of the previous generation. It’s a maddeningly predictable cycle of existence, repeated with only minor variations throughout the whole course of human existence, across cultures, races, and millenia.
There is, of course, no better example of a sense of justice gone horribly wrong as that of the German people before, during, and even after the Holocaust. It is against this backdrop that the film Phoenix— the newest from director Christian Petzold–is set. The plot centers around a half-Jewish German woman named Nelly Lenz, who is played impeccably by Nina Hoss. Nelly has survived the Holocaust, but at a terrible price: her face has been disfigured to such a degree that she requires a reconstructive surgery that will render her unrecognizable to even her closest friends. Upon her return to Berlin, she is urged by Lene, a Jewish friend who is working with the government to resettle displaced Holocaust survivors, to abandon Germany and her previous life and instead move to Israel. The symbolic import is clear: Nelly can never hope to find the peace in Germany that she once enjoyed; she can never again be simply herself.
Nelly, however, cannot bring herself to give up on her old life so easily. She instructs the surgeon to attempt to reconstruct her face to look exactly as it did before, despite the doctor’s repeated assertion that she would only feel frustrated by the inaccuracy of even his best work. She seeks out and binds herself to her old husband Johnny, despite Lene’s insistence that he was the one who informed on her and despite the fact that Johnny does not recognize her. Put simply, she’s searching for a past that probably never existed and that certainly can never be reconstructed.
What follows after this is pure torture to the viewer: we see Nelly, time and time again, attempting to remind both herself and Johnny of their past life together. And we see Johnny continuing to use Nelly without a hint of shame: thinking she is a new woman who simply looks somewhat like Nelly, Johnny gets her to “impersonate” herself in order for him to gain the money Nelly has inherited from her many deceased relatives. Out of nostalgia and a desperation to forgive, Nelly plays along. By the time Petzold brings the viewer to the perfectly rendered and infinitely moving finale, everyone surrounding Nelly appears to be profoundly guilty– and, in an absolute triumph of subtle expression on the part of the actors playing Johnny and Nelly’s assorted old friends, one gets the sense that they are finally beginning to realize this fact.
It is this essential guilt that lends the film its moral thrust. It is infuriating to watch the self-satisfaction of Nelly’s friends, who seem to reason that they could have done nothing for her during the war and surely deserve moral credit for being near her when she returns from Auschwitz. It is all the more infuriating to recognize how completely unrepentant Johnny remains throughout the movie. Even he, who gave Nelly up to the SS, finds others to blame: he had been backed into a corner and incarcerated until forced to give her up, and he is only trying to obtain her money now because there’s nothing better to be done with it.
And if this is what gives the film its moral thrust, the inability of Nelly to recognize the guilt in those around her gives the film its absolutely heartbreaking emotional impact. In one particularly memorable scene, Nelly sits behind Johnny on a motorcycle, talking to him about all the reasons why it might have been okay that he gave Nelly up to the SS. Even Nelly, who has been wronged literally to the point that she is unrecognizable, cannot bring herself to accuse anyone of moral culpability for the majority of the film. Lene, the one person who has a clear view of justice in the film, is tragically powerless to convince anyone of anything. Therefore, when the ending finally comes and everyone begins to recognize the horrors of their own actions and inactions, the result is satisfying to the extreme.
Surveying the state of modern Germany, the timeliness and value of such an ending cannot be understated: it is the ultimate guilt that lies at the core of modern German identity that has been so instrumental in turning it into the relatively benevolent superpower that it is today. From West Germany reabsorbing East Germany despite massive economic costs to the current acceptance of huge numbers of Syrian refugees to its continued commitment to the EU to its leadership on the issue of clean energy, German actions on a geopolitical level still reflect the fear of repeating the past and hurting the disadvantaged around the world. And, unlike other nations, such as the USA, who seem to view much of the past mostly as a series of wrongs committed against a completely innocent motherland, the Germans view the past as a series of wrongs committed by the motherland against others. To modify a phrase of Tarkovsky’s, modern German history can essentially be defined as a balancing act between moral torment and the promise of ultimate forgiveness.
But this viewpoint is beginning to fade: as those who lived through the horror that was Germany in the Weimar, World War II and post-war periods– such as each of my own grandparents did– begin to die off, they are being replaced by a younger generation that has lived its whole life in a privileged, humane, and efficient society. Ironically, this new generation, which has never seen the horror that comes with a misplaced sense of justice, is much more xenophobic and anti-EU than older generations: they feel, once again, that they are the ones that are being wronged, and that the German people don’t need to be held back by an otherwise struggling Europe, much less by a Middle East in seemingly constant turmoil. They have no sense that their nation must repay a debt to the world by accepting refugees or providing humanitarian aid. For this reason, Petzold’s film needs to be seen, not only by young Germans who are forgetting their nation’s moral failings but by the citizens of every other nation on earth, most of whom have never recognized their wrongdoing in the first place. Guilt is a necessary emotion that leads to a positive change; it is the one emotion that can lead people away from the absolute selfishness that rules most of human existence. Guilt has been the key to the humanity of the modern German state, and it is an emotion that should be felt by every other global power.