Surviving the post-war: Review of Ida and Phoenix
With the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War having just passed and over two decades of particularly lively academic and popular debate about the war, the Holocaust and its legacies, one wonders what can still be added to the discussion. Yet two recent films, Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida and Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, have awed the public with the emotional intensity of the performances, complexity of the stories and remarkable aesthetics of their depictions of these events. With this, they give insight into dimensions of historical experience that any amount of historical knowledge cannot offer and thereby remind us of the power of art and fiction.
Set in Poland in 1961, Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning feature film depicts the experiences of a young Catholic nun called Ida, who is advised to make contact with her only surviving relative just before she takes her vows. This relative is her aunt, a forty-five year old state judge, Wanda G. The encounter with Wanda is not only challenging because of her radically different lifestyles – Wanda is a Communist with liberal mores, chain smoker and heavy drinker – but because she also reveals to Ida that she was in fact born Ida Lebenstein to Jewish parents who died during the war. Undertaking a road trip together they set out to discover what happened to Ida’s family. For both of them, delving into the past poses a threat to the identities they have adopted in the post-war Poland and forces them to make radical choices to find peace.
Set in the immediate aftermath of the war in rubble-strewn Germany, Petzold’s Phoenix tells the story of a Jewish concentration camp survivor who returns to Germany after having had reconstructive surgery on her face. Though she finds her husband, he does not recognize her. He does however see the resemblance she bears to his wife who he believes is dead and decides to pass her off as his wife in order to claim her fortune. The plot thickens as the viewer realizes he was probably the one who betrayed her to the Nazis in the first place. The intermingling of the themes of love, deception, loyalty, opportunism and hardship offer a complex picture of the difficulties faced by post-war Germans in which the obvious physical destruction can be seen as an allegory for the crumbling of society’s moral foundations.
While Pawlikowski’s film is still, grey and slow, Petzold’s is animated, colourful and full of suspense. Both draw in interesting ways on different genres and refer to classic films and directors. The stories’ resolutions are also different insofar as the outcome of the first film feels final whereas Petzold offers – a rather typical for his style – abrupt and mysterious closure.
However these two films also share a great deal. Both Pawlikowski and Petzold wanted to offer more than films about recent history. And indeed, if one feels these films add something, it is not because of what they tell us about the war and the Holocaust, but rather because of what they reveal about their reverberations and human relations in general. They problematize the roots of post-war silence, which was less about the absence of speakers than the lack of an audience; focusing on ambivalent cases of Jewishness, they also help make sense of the roots of the radical identity politics that emerged from the violence. Most importantly, with their highly intimate and personal perspectives, they test the comforting and clear-cut narratives of human decency and indecency, which we have become so used to.
By addressing the inseparability of individual and collective reckoning, Ida and Phoenix, if in very different ways and in very different settings, and without ever questioning who the real victims were, both challenge the facile periodization of pre – during – and postwar and the notion that anyone could survive unscathed.