I submitted to Brian Saur's excellent Rupert Pupkin Speaks blog. And those stories that mention those facts offer cursory note that PHOENIX makes significant changes to the original plot. But almost none of the reviews have gone into direct detail into the various and interesting differences between these three incarnations of the story. Reading reviews of the earlier film may provide a few answers. Trying to find a detailed review of the original novel is currently an near-impossible task.
Thus, because I am guessing there is at least one other person who is like me and wants to know about these things, I'm stepping in to answer as many of them as I can.
"...memory makes arbitrary choices."
Kate Bush's "Babooshka", she cannot resist the curiosity of trying to woo her husband a second time, and the morbid desire to know what he and Fabi really thought about her during her absence. As she goes through the steps to impersonate herself, she is confronted with the long-ignored hostilities of her daughter, the possibility that Stan may have been responsible for her arrest and internment by the Nazis, and the question of what will happen after this plan is over...
"...I'm not going to ruin myself to perfect a disguise that's stifling me."
|J. Lee Thompson|
Despite these cavalier origins, Thompson's adaptation from Epstein's screenplay is an underrated gem. Swedish actress Ingrid Thulin, who was cast at the last minute after an abrupt departure by original star Gina Lollobrigida, handles the tough task of selling her character (renamed Mischa Wolf) as a woman who knows she's in love with a bad man, but can only find the fire to care about life through her involvement with him. Samantha Eggar, in one of her earliest roles as Fabi (altered to Mischa's stepdaughter), also has a tricky act to sell, beefing up what was a (perhaps deliberately) underwritten character in the book with a mixture of brattiness and buried hurt, unable to muster interest for her parent's war ordeal because in better days, she could not muster interest in her. And notably, there is a rare showcase for Herbert Lom to portray a dignified hero instead of one his many flamboyant villains, playing Elisabeth's former lover and one trustworthy confidante (renamed Dr. Bovard), another character elevated from a more tertiary role in the book. If there is a fault to be found with this film, it is that once Maximillian Schell appears on screen as Stan, he pretty much steals the focus of the movie away from its primary lead (but third-billed star) Thulin. As I observed in my short valediction for Saur's blog, Schell's performance as the heelish yet honest opportunist she can't stop loving contains all the seeds of charming caddery that made Hans Landa so memorable in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (where Christoph Waltz similarly steals that movie away from top-billed Brad Pitt), and since it was through Quentin Tarantino's influence that I first saw the film in 2011, I had been firm in my belief that he and Waltz modeled Landa's character from whole snatches of Schell's performance, until I received confirmation from Tarantino himself that he'd not seen the film until after BASTERDS had been completed.
"...I caress the idea of a final return which would round everything out."
"Speak Low" to hint at emotional turns and address the survivors' sense of loss. I suspect the rechristening of the male lead's name to Johnny is homage to another infamous Weill antihero, the heartless pipesmoker "Surabaya Johnny" created for his 1929 musical HAPPY END.
By my calculus, Petzold's PHOENIX is a better film than Thompson's RETURN FROM THE ASHES, and by default, better than the original novel. The post-war trauma that is introduced in ASHES, while thoughtful, is ultimately just extra set dressing for an entertaining but not exceptional spin on DIABOLIQUE and the "who's going to die last" question to which all such stories boil down, whereas PHOENIX reaches elevation by flipping the question instead to become "how do you go on living." In the manner of Coppola with Mario Puzo or P.T. Anderson with Upton Sinclair, Petzold keenly takes escapist pulp and expands upon it to depict characters, and thus a nation, that for decades, lost the very notion of pulp, pop culture, and escape. In an interview with Canadian Jewish News, the director said that when modern German creatives ask, "‘Where are the comedies? Why don’t we have musicals or genres like film noir?’ It’s because we destroyed [them].” PHOENIX, as title and as film, has been interpreted by different viewers to mean that Germany, or Israel, or art, or love, or one woman, arises from the dust left behind by unthinkable destruction, demonstrating how such an time-and-place specific tale as conceived by its filmmakers can reach beyond to a universal audience.
In short, I heartily recommend reading the book and seeing both films, but I am very confident that of these three things, you'll have the most animated conversations about PHOENIX.
And now, it's time to reveal all the secrets of the works in question. Consider this the metaphorical "Fabi in the bathtub" moment. I'd really rather you partake of all these works as I did with fresh eyes, but if you want the answers, you'll find them all here.
"...like the bitter pleasure of draining the cup before you smash it to bits."