I attended a matinee screening of the German movie “Phoenix”. As the movie began and the screen was still black, I heard a lone upright bass picking out two notes a major sixth apart, followed by four more notes bounding down and back up to the sixth. A piano added isolated chords as a spare accompaniment. I recognized this melody. This was “Speak Low”, in a film noir-esque bass/piano version. I was quietly thrilled. “Speak Low” is the song I would name if I was ever forced to answer – gun to my head or not – the impossible question of what is the best song ever written. And in this movie it is being used as the main theme, the melody that will define and haunt this story set in post-war Germany as much as “As Time Goes By” haunts “Casablanca”.
Speak low when you speak, love
Our summer day withers away too soon, too soon
Speak low when you speak, love
Our moment is swift
Like ships adrift we’re swept apart too soon
Early on in “Phoenix”, the lead character, Nelly, a concentration camp survivor returned to Berlin after the war, listens to this recording of “Speak Low” on a phonograph:
I wondered how likely it was that Germans would have heard “Speak Low” after the war. The song was written in 1943 for the musical “One Touch of Venus” (music by Kurt Weill; lyrics by Ogden Nash), and was a hit in the USA. But Germans didn’t really start to discover Weill’s “Musik im Exil”, the French chansons and Broadway scores he composed after fleeing Nazi Germany, until the 1980s (my mother, the opera singer Catherine Gayer, was one of the first to introduce Weill’s American songs to German audiences in a cabaret program at the Berliner Festwochen in 1980).
Still, the theme of lovers having been separated by the horrors of war was already revealing itself in “Phoenix’s” narrative, so the use of “Speak Low” made sense, and it was possible a vinyl record could have made it’s way to Nelly’s friend’s possession. But why a mere piano vocal recording? And who was this awkward singer warbling with a thick German accent?
Turns out it is none other than Kurt Weill himself, from a recording never intended for public consumption, but a demo tape he made to help attract financial backing for “One Touch of Venus”. The recording wasn’t pressed on vinyl for public sale until 1953 (three years after his death).
So it is impossible that Nelly would have been listening to that recording in 1945. But it doesn’t matter. The choice of song is perfect for the movie, and that it is none other than Kurt Weill himself singing on the record as if he were some aging German cabaret singer recording the latest American hit for post-war German audiences, casts a particularly haunting spell. I can see why the director Christian Petzold couldn’t resist using this particular recording of “Speak Low” to anchor “Phoenix”.
Various versions of “Speak Low”, the bass/piano rumination, a solo violin nightclub serenade, the Kurt Weill solo, will accompany the strange tale of “Phoenix”. But it will finally be heard in an incredibly dramatic fashion at the climax of the movie. The lyrics, the way the song is performed, and the reaction to the performance are as revelatory and devastating as any climactic movie confrontation you could imagine. There are not many non-musical movies that use the singing of a song so effectively, for whom the climax or turning point of the drama hinges on the performance of a song. One example that springs to mind is Doris Day singing “Che Sera Sera” to rescue her kidnapped child in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much”. The comparison with Hitchcock is also apt because “Phoenix” bears a strong kinship with another Hitchcock masterpiece: “Vertigo”.
Roland Zehrfeld & Nina Hoss in “Phoenix”
Nelly (Nina Hoss) had survived the camps, but not without grievous wounds requiring facial reconstruction surgery. She seeks out her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may or may not have betrayed her to the Nazi’s during the war. He does not recognize her; but he does offer this stranger who looks a lot like his (presumed dead) wife a deal: she will pose as Nelly, and as the imposter she will claim a large inheritance waiting to be claimed by the real Nelly, and they will share the money. Shell-shocked by her camp experiences, still desperately in love with Johnny, and uncertain whether he did betray her or not, Nelly goes along with the plan to become her own imposter…