I recently went to see Phoenix, Christian Petzold’s new film starring Nina Hoss. Despite it being rather heavy-going I found much to ponder in its strange story of lost identities in post-war Germany, but had a weird, niggling sensation that I had seen it all before. Had I stayed for the end credits, I would have discovered that it is in fact an adaptation of the French mystery novel Le Retour des Cendres by Hubert Monteilhet, previously filmed by J. Lee Thompson in 1965 as Return from the Ashes. We begin in 1945 …
I submit this review for Bev’s 2016 Vintage Scavenger Hunt; and Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason at his unmissable Sweet Freedom blog.
“The thing is … You look very like my wife …”
If one thinks of the prototypical French mystery from the 50s and 60s, setting aside the Maigret police procedurals (after all, authored by the Belgian writer, Georges Simenon) which had been ongoing since the 1930s, what one most often thinks of are those ingenious, outrageous, cynical and twist-laden ‘who is trying to get who’ tales of psychological suspense by the likes Sebastian Japrison, Catherine Arley and, most successful of all, the team of Boileau and Narcejac. The crime fiction by Hubert Monteilhet, now perhaps best-known for his historical novels, definitely falls into this camp.
“You talk like an early Christian!”
“Maybe I do. but it’s a relief to see a crucified woman at close quarters, after mistakenly denying her.”
After the huge success of his debut novel, The Praying Mantises, he followed it up with Phoenix from the Ashes (also published in English as Return from the Ashes), which is set just after the end of the second world war. The surgeon Elisabeth Wolf returns to Paris after being liberated from a concentration camp, lucky to have survived but deeply scarred by her experiences (she had to work in a Nazi brothel to survive). She learns that she has become hugely wealthy with the death of her relatives during the war and so decides to undergo some cosmetic surgery to try and return to the way she looked before the war (and in fact makes a few ‘improvement too, including make her nose look more ‘jewish’). She also wants to delay meeting her family to cure an STD she caught in the camp (the first of many rather lurid little details that litter the plot). Thus she wants to look her best, and as familiar as possible, before being reunited with Fabienne, the daughter from her first marriage that hitherto she had largely ignored, and her second husband, the chess master Stanislas Pilgrim, a charming sponger who probably never loved her but with whom she is none the less still in love with. But things turn tricky when she bumps into him in a bar and he doesn’t recognise her – as if that weren’t bad enough, it turns out that, having assumed that Elisabeth must have died in the camps since she has not yet returned, he wants her to impersonate his wife (i.e. herself) so they can split her inheritance. The author realises just how absurd the premise is and has Elisabeth, who narrates throughout (the book is told almost entirely in the form of her diary), point it out too – for instance:
“I was jealous! And of myself!” (page 31)
“There’s something slightly contrived about the whole thing …” (page 32)
“This artificial situation can’t go on much longer” (page 34)
But there is a lot more plot to go through here as Elisabeth, Stan and Fabienne all have their own scores to settle and start plotting against each other. Does it work? Well, the story is never credible for a moment, and the various asides devoted to philosophical matters and even the ‘Jewish question’ are either hokey or downright offensive in the bluntness and general vulgarity. And yet, for all that, despite its complete departure from reality, there is something quite compelling about the knots that the central trio ties itself into – though to say more about the story would be to rob it of its one true saving grace.
Along with a version made for French TV in 1982 (as Le Retour d’Elisabeth Wolff, starring Malka Ribowska, Niels Arestru and Clémentine Amouroux in the main roles, and which I have not yet seen), the novel has now been adapted twice for the cinema. The first and most faithful was released as Return from the Ashes in 1965, with Ingrid Thulin as Elizabeth (renamed Michelle), Maximillian Schell as Stan, and Samantha Eggar as Fabienne, the latter in a much enlarged role (and as a result she gets second billing, above Thulin). Schell is perfectly cast as the charming but amoral Stan, while Thulin does seem quite uncomfortable in her decidedly unlikely role, maybe because, having to go through so many make-ups for her various personae she just couldn’t settle on how to play the character! Samantha Eggar has a great time as the decidedly unhinged Fabi, while Herbert Lom, an Elisabeth’s old friend and confidante Pierre (renamed Charles) plays pretty much the only really sympathetic person in the whole story. All of the plot of the book is used by the end of the first half, at which point scriptwriter Julius Epstein and director J. Lee Thompson concoct a brand new and even more melodramatic extension to the narrative, including such elements as a murder in a locked bathroom inspired by Psycho (the cheesy advertising campaign was in fact built entirely around it), an over-the-top jazz club sequence and a bizarre murder method involving a revolver inside a safe. Thompson, as he was wont to do when his scripts let him down, goes overboard with exaggerated camera moves and assorted expressionistic effects. The result is an enjoyable but unsubtle suspense thriller, redeemed mainly by strong production design, fine chiaroscuro lensing by Chris Challis and a typically restrained performance by Lom.
Phoenix, Christian Petzold’s new film version, is mainly a vehicle for his artistic muse, Nina Hoss, who here dominates in a version of the story set in post-war Germany rather than France and which owes rather more to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (which I previously wrote about here) than to the original novel. The daughter in fact is written out of the script entirely and the who second half of the story has been largely jettisoned, much more of a character piece than a mystery. She is now an opera singer rather than a surgeon and he little more than a labourer who coaches her in impersonating his wife, never realising who she really is. The finale, involving a musical performance by Hoss, is very moving, as are the sections in a new subplot involving the founding of the new Jewish state. Using little more than the basic premise, Phoenix is hardly a close adaptation of the novel, but it is artistically a much greater and more successful work.
DVD Availability: This title is now available in the US as part of MGM’s ‘Made on Demand’ classics range and looks very nice indeed. I would prefer to be able to recommend the pressed edition released quite a few years ago in Spain, but unfortunately the English audio on my copy goes out of sync very early.
Return from the Ashes (1965)
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Producer: J. Lee Thompson
Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein
Cinematography: Christopher Challis
Art Direction: Michael Stringer
Music: John Dankworth
Cast: Maximillian Schell (Stan), Ingrid Thulin (Elizabeth [renamed Michel]), Samantha Eggar (Fabienne), Herbert Lom (Pierre [renamed Charles]), Vladek Sheybal, Talitha Pol
I submit this review for Bev’s 2016 Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the ‘blonde’ category: