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.
The book opens with a short prologue written by a police detective to Fabienne, indicating that Elizabeth is already dead from a gas leak in her home, that they suspect it is murder and not an accident, Stan is already in custody for another unrelated crime, and that she is a person of interest in the investigation. Elizabeth's diary is presented to Fabi as an incentive for her to tell the truth to the police. The reader is thus serving as Fabi's eyes in reading about the story events from Elizabeth's perspective.
When Elizabeth agrees to the impersonation plan, she is told that it was Fabienne's idea; after spotting her on the street shortly after her return to Paris, Fabi exhorted Stan to seek out this "other woman" and convince her to participate. Elizabeth learns shortly after that her daughter and husband have become lovers in her absence, and have definitely considered eliminating her after the money is claimed. After going through with her "public" return as Elizabeth, "Julia" and Stan become physically involved, and while he tries to placate a jealous Fabi that it's part of the act, it appears their passion is genuine. Elizabeth soon receives a letter from a former Captain claiming that Stan very likely identified her as a Jew and tipped off authorities to the location and alias she had been hiding under, causing her capture. While she tries to verify this claim, she enlists the help of Dr. Bigan to fake a gynecological report suggesting "Julia" may be proved a fraud by a missing birthmark. At the same time, she also forges correspondence from "the real Elizabeth" in Germany. These moves are partly to rattle Stan and Fabi and keep herself alive, but also as a long-term means to plausibly eliminate her Julia alter ego. The claims of betrayal are backed up, and more letters from "Elizabeth" appear, prompting Stan to tell her the truth: he did out her as a Jew and give up her hiding place, but did so anonymously by forging the tip to the Germans as a bureaucrat's letter, in order to prevent rogue French collaborators who would have independently tortured both of them to get the bank codes to steal her family's money, in effect preserving the inheritance in case she survived. Elizabeth, who during her imprisonment willingly agreed to work in a camp brothel to get better food and stay alive, understands Stan's logic, saying "You can't be angry with a dog for letting his master drown because the water's too cold." Stan also reveals that in a last-minute attempt to go to Chartres and retrieve the denunciation letter, he killed a man on the train who was later found to be a brothel operator who was also collaborating with the Nazis. Left ambivalent over how to proceed, a visit from an alms collector claiming to provide for former prostitutes inspires Elizabeth to forgive Stan. That evening, as they engage in a game of chess, the manner of her strategy is what finally makes Stan realize the real Elizabeth has been with him the entire time. Elizabeth vows not to reveal Stan's betrayal to authorities, and they begin to figure out a way to end the "Julia" charade, since Fabi still does not know the truth, but does still see her as a rival for Stan's affections. A newspaper report later reveals the alms collector to be a con artist who has subsequently died in a car accident, and as Elizabeth tells Stan of their encounter, as well as her time working in the camp brothel, Stan makes a final revelation: despite his public atheism, he is in fact Jewish by birth. In her final diary entries, Elizabeth reveals Stan has left for a chess competition, her desire to reveal the truth to Fabi, and her general happiness over getting her husband and life back.
While the specifics of Elizabeth's death are still left vague and open to multiple theories, a terse nota bene reveals that three days after receipt of the diary, Fabienne herself committed suicide by gas inhalation. The reader's likely conclusion is that she acted alone in committing the murder out of jealousy, unaware that the victim was her own mother, and after reading the diary, guilt has driven her to take her own life similarly.
Besides the character name differences and the change in relationship between Mischa and Fabi, Epstein's screenplay makes significant changes to the plot. The bulk of the moral relativism Stan possessed in the book is eliminated in favor of making him a more straightforward villain, probably to appease censors who could not allow criminal acts to succeed or fiends to look sympathetic. However, the entire question of Mischa's betrayal to the Nazis is eliminated - he marries Mischa for her money, but is horrified at her arrest, giving Stan some degree of extra valor; he's a liar and, later on, a murderer, but he's no fink.
Very little time is spent on the impersonation scenario that occupied the bulk of the book - almost as soon as it is introduced and depicted, it is resolved, and Mischa's true identity becomes known to Stan and Fabi. The movie continues onward, with the tension between the three of them carrying the weight from then on. My gut hypothesis is that while by 1965 the Production Code had loosened in terms of depicting sexual behavior, the MPAA was not yet created, and local censorship boards could still cause problems, so perhaps by getting the false identity plot resolved quickly, Mischa and Stan could be depicted as a couple sharing a bed without knee-jerk objections of suborning adulterous behavior. Also, by making Fabi a stepdaughter instead of a birth daughter, the "ick" factor of sharing a sex partner with her mother would have been lessened for still-tentative audiences, while increasing the sense of moral disconnect and resentment Fabi carries for Mischa;.durinng this specific semi-progressive '60's climate when the movie was made, not sharing blood ties, and still bearing the history of being left at boarding schools all her life, would make it plausible and "acceptable" for Fabi to have murderous impulses towards a parent.
As such, in keeping with the requirement to punish criminal acts in films, the ending becomes all about the failure of the grand plan. Stan initially believes everything has worked: he calls Mischa at the appointed time and hears the gunshot, and when he returns home, finds her body. But as he starts to manipulate the crime scene, she is revealed to be alive, and Dr. Bovard and police await him; unbeknownst to him, Bovard was present during the fated phone call, and helped her avoid missing the bullet.
Even with the liberties and cuts to the source material previously noted earlier, there is still a spiritual faithfulness to the original evolution of the book's plot, in that the ebb and flow of Nelly's/"Esther's" relationship with Johnny amidst their impersonation activities, as well as the question of whether Johnny betrayed her, takes center stage again. There is even a lower-key surprise character exit as in the film of ASHES, in the suicide of best friend Lene, who kills herself due to feeling "more drawn to our dead than to the living." In her suicide note, she provides a copy of the divorce decree Johnny filed against Nelly a day before her capture by the Nazis, proving his culpability. Keeping the information secret, Nelly goes ahead with a public return to Johnny before their mutual friends, an event retained from the midway point of the original book. The significant difference is that here, the couple are asked to perform the aforementioned "Speak Low," which had been a staple of their act before the war. Nelly, who has previously begged off from singing all through the story, now demonstrates a rising and confident voice, which Johnny recognizes all too well, along with the camp tattoo she previously hid from him. He stops playing, and she finishes the song a capella. This is a particularly well-done mirror of the book's resolution of the crucial interplay through an activity this couple shared love and skill for, that when revisited, reveals the woman's true identity and the man's true guilt - only instead of chess, it is music.
Check and mate. Finita la commedia.
"That's what courage is: to entertain, without illusions, knowing it is for the time being, emotions worthy of eternity."