Although it may prove too slow or emotionally cold for some, German writer-director Christian Petzold’s richly absorbing and atmospheric Phoenix will prove immensely satisfying for moviegoers more attuned to film noir, period melodramas, and especially moving Holocaust dramas. Masterfully evoking the apocalyptic mood of a war-ravaged post-war Berlin (think The Third Man), Petzold’s haunting film noir, which was loosely adapted from French crime writer Hubert Monteilhet’s 1963 novel “Return from the Ashes,” centers on Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a German-Jewish nightclub singer who survived the concentration camps of Auschwitz but is left horribly disfigured after being shot in the face by a Nazi.
Brought to Berlin by her friend and fellow Holocaust survivor Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), Nelly receives extensive facial reconstruction surgery from a top German surgeon. However, she is warned that although the surgery is successful, her face will never be identical to the one she had before the war. Unable to recognize herself, or anything else around her for that matter, Nelly begins searching for her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) in hopes of rekindling at least one aspect of her pre-war life. But Lene, who wants Nelly to move with her to Israel, isn’t as supportive of Nelly’s quest to find Johnny. She believes that he was the one who betrayed Nelly to the Nazis to save his skin.
After finding him working as a waiter in a nightclub called Phoenix in the American sector of Berlin, Nelly is crushed when she realizes that he doesn’t recognize her at all. Then something unexpected happens. Thinking her to be a doppelganger of his “dead” wife, Johnny asks Nelly (who now goes by the name of Esther) to pretend to be his wife in the hopes of securing her inheritance. Perhaps because she’s still deeply in love with him or perhaps she can’t come to terms with Lene’s assertions that he betrayed her, Nelly agrees to Johnny’s bizarre scheme. And so begins a strange twist on Vertigo in which Johnny coaches Nelly to walk like the old Nelly, to talk like her, dress like her, and even write like her. So blinded is he by his quest to make her the old Nelly that he doesn’t even realize the real woman behind the scars. Eventually, the role-playing helps Nelly rediscover her old self while also helping her fall in love with her husband again. But one thing keeps nagging her, and by extension, the audience: Did Johnny really betray her to the Nazis?
Although this is a question Petzold keeps toying with, he offers no easy answers. And neither do his actors. Hoss, who has collaborated with the Petzold six times now (their last film together was the fantastic Barbara), is phenomenal as the fragile, deeply traumatized and anguished Nelly who has to learn how to move forward and find her confidence again. Meanwhile, Zehrfeld is as impressive in a trickier role as a man whose desperation cloaks his suffering. Still, this is Petzold’s show and he masterfully controls the journey until its very final and magnificent scene. Using this strange love story, he effortlessly captures the helplessness, confusion, betrayal and profound sense of emptiness that greeted survivors of the Holocaust when they returned to the places they once called home. How do you deal with friends and family who deserted you when you needed them the most? How do you learn to move forward after experiencing such horrors? Is there any meaning left in humanity after the barbarity they endured? These are hard questions that the filmmaker asks his audience to grapple with. Whether you chose to engage with the broader allegories at play or simply view it at face value, this is a riveting motion picture that hooks you all the way till its triumphant finale.
Running time: 98 minutes
Companies: Sundance Selects, Schramm Film Koerner & Weber
Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements and brief suggestive material)