In Phoenix, Christian Petzold’s latest film to grapple with Germany’s twentieth-century past, Kurt Weill’s mournful song Speak Low lurks and laments beyond the frame, occasionally entering it, too, crossing with crushing inevitability that nebulous boundary drawn by theorists of the cinema between the diegetic and non-diegetic—sound heard by the onscreen characters and sound audible only to the audience.
In this masterfully plotted yet elliptically told story about loss, memory, and the perils of reconstruction (both physical and emotional), Weill’s music becomes not just a metaphor for the events told but a crucial actor in the drama. Indeed, so powerful is the pull of this, one of his most famous melodies, that Weill himself is conjured: his voice literally heard, though his face never seen.
Only the rarest of soundtracks escapes its supporting role to be given a star turn. Few composers will ever attain the stature of John Williams or Ennio Morricone, both of whom have enjoy a celebrity surpassing that of most of the directors they’ve worked with. Yet even there greatest scores are still to be thought of as supporting actors: Indiana Jones’ theme in Raiders of the Lost Ark is, like his bullwhip, merely another accessory.
In Phoenix, however, the music participates in the narrative, seeping from subliminal suggestion to cinematic reality. Even if the celluloid figures can’t hear—or don’t want to hear—the song, we know it is haunting them.
Petzold could well have drawn this idea from the Weill’s own biography. The composer first met his future wife Lotte Lenya only through her voice, laying eyes on her two years after their first aural encounter. Weill was at the piano in the orchestra pit of a Berlin theatre when Lenya came in to audition for a part in his children’s pantomime Magic Night. She called down from the stage for the piano player to start up with Strauss’s Blue Danube—a seemingly odd choice for a cabaretist of the Weimar Republic even if this most famous of waltzes had been equipped with ironic words after Austria’s defeat by Prussia in 1866. Weill was immediately captivated by the voice from above, though the stage director had other ideas and did not hire Lenya for the part. It was only two years later when the pair met at a party that Weill realized he heard Lenya’s voice before. They were married (for the first of two times) soon after.
Similarly, the unique qualities of each human voice, especially one belonging to a gifted singer, are crucial to Phoenix.
Nelly Lenz (played by Nina Hoss) is a Jewish cabaret singer, who survives Auschwitz and returns to Berlin, where she has reconstructive on her face disfigured by gunshot wounds. The plastic surgeon asks what movie star of the day she would like to resemble, but Nelly insists on being returned to her original self even after the doctor advises against it, claiming that however successful the operation, the new face will never be the same as the old one. Even her best friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), who refuses to forgive not only the Nazis’ crimes but also the lack of moral courage of former friends, tries not to admit the truth that she cannot see the old Nelly in the face of the new one. The surgery serves as a metaphor of failed reconstruction and reconciliation: like the mythic creature of the film’s title, which also refers to the Berlin nightclub where Nina goes searching for her past, the phoenix might rise from the ashes transformed into something unrecognizable.
It is at the Phoenix Club that Nelly eventually finds her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who believes—or wants to believe—that his wife is dead. Unable, or unwilling to recognize his spouse in Nelly’s remade face, he nonetheless sees enough similarity to his wife that he decides to make her over and to train her so that together they can claim Nelly’s substantial fortune. What follows is a riveting film noir played out in the darkest shadows of the twentieth-century.
Nelly’s plastic surgery provides the requisite device on which the plot turns, forcing the couple to ride the knife-edge between exposure and masquerade, between repressed recognition and violent revelation. The conceit is not so much the narcotic required for the viewer to suspend belief, but rather the main ingredient of allegory: ultimately the film confronts the unanswerable question of how Germans chose not to see the truth of the Holocaust both while it was happening and afterwards. Phoenix therefore operates beyond the dictates of narrative coherence, even while paying careful attention to them.
Arguably the most allegorical and allusive of the film’s materials is Weill’s music. The first sound we hear in Phoenix accompanies a car’s headlights pushing towards an Allied checkpoint: it is the sultry and melancholic plaint of Speak Low pulled from a double bass backed by brushed drums and crystalline piano chords. This is the jazz-trio-in-smoke-filled-bar of cinematic convention and cliché—a tawdry touch from those 1950s crime movies, many of the best ones of which were made by German exiles in Hollywood. Through soundtrack the sense of loss and displacement emerges right from the start, even if these self-referential cinematic games verge on the coy and tasteless. Yet everyone who loves the movies knows that we—like this film’s characters—are in the cinema to be manipulated: we want to fool ourselves for the better part of two hours, or more.
This routine, and therefore duly evocative, rendering of Speak Low appears at various junctures in the movie, not so much a leitmotiv as a spritz of heavy perfume.
This version of the song emanates as if from Nelly’s unconscious. But it is also heard by her and others within the world of the film in varying degrees of presentness. While a violin solo in the Phoenix club may or may not be noticed by her, Nelly is gripped when Lene puts on a shellac disc of the song on the gramophone in her apartment. The uncanny nearness of the performance affects her greatly. Many in the audience—and maybe even Nelly herself—will recognize that the performer is Weill himself.
This scene demonstrates most clearly Petzold’s willfully mythical treatment of history: it is impossible that Weill’s recording would have found its way into Nelly’s Berlin sitting room by 1945, or even that she would know a song composed for a Broadway musical in 1943.
Speak Low as done by the ethereal off-screen trio emits a nostalgic mist, and Weill’s own piano accompaniment to his singing of Ogden Nash’s words is not without yearning. But there is a caustic edge of truth to the composer’s voice:
When you speak love
Our summer day
Too soon, too soon
Weill’s song and his performance projects a sense of time slipping away, lost but remembered. The melody rocks back forth above oscillating harmonies as if clinging to the moment before rising up to “too soon”; there is a slight descent to the repeat of “speak low” and an ensuing downward drift to a restive close, the melody landing a third below the home pitch above a chord that superimposes a major chord and its relative minor. This sonority, so rife with the ambiguities of regret, inevitably alludes to one of Weill’s great influences, Gustav Mahler, and by extension to a world of art and ideas destroyed by the Nazis. Petzold’s sonic repatriation of Weill in the film becomes a symbol of cultural loss, but also of the promise and danger of return.
Weill fled Germany in the spring of 1933 soon after the Nazis came to power. He went to Paris, then on to London, before moving with Lenya to New York in 1935. Arriving in New York Harbor, Weill claimed to have had the feeling of coming home. Unlike the film’s Nelly, Weill would never return to German.
After Mack the Knife, Speak Low is Weill’s most famous song and was among his greatest gifts to his adopted country. It was recorded by dozens of famous entertainers, from Frank Sinatra to Barbara Streisand, and taken up as a jazz standard most notably in the late 1950s where it was often kick-started with a Latin beat before being made to swing unabashedly. Among the hard boppers it was always buoyant, not withering. Like the best of songs, Weill’s creation was capable of, indeed eager for, transformation.
Speak Low is transformed yet again in Petzold’s cinematic confrontation with the song’s themes, musical and emotional. This profoundly unsettling transformation elevates Weill, who flirted with Hollywood but never did much there, into the posthumous composer of a sparse and unforgettable soundtrack of loss and remembering, of return but not redemption.