Written Christian Petzold & Harun Farocki
Directed by Christian Petzold
The post-World War II period in Germany has proven to, when used as a setting, provide some of the most atmospheric and rich stories in cinema. You have this sliver of time after the defeat of the Nazis and before the nation was cleaved in half by the Cold War where society was attempting to redefine its identity in the wake of cultural horrors. There were survivors of the Holocaust re-entering Berlin, some with a desire to move past what that had experienced and others never forgetting which of their neighbors betrayed their trust. This is the landscape of mature, nuanced thrillers where each interaction can be dealt with a delicate touch, and shocking reveals are as gentle as a feather yet devastate people to their cores.
Nelly Henz is transported into Berlin by her friend Lene to re-establish their lives and for Nelly to receive reconstructive surgery on her face. Near the end of Nelly’s time in the concentration camps, she was wounded in the face by a shotgun blast, and the doctor does his best to recreate her old visage but ends up with only faint reminders. All of Nelly’s family died in the Holocaust, so she now has a fortune to inherit, and Lene encourages her to collect this wealth so the two can move to Palestine as part of the resettlement effort. Nelly insists on finding her husband Johnny, but Lene insists he was the one who revealed Nelly’s hiding location to the Nazis. Nelly finds Johnny working tables at the Phoenix nightclub, but he doesn’t know this is his wife due to the surgery. Eventually, the truth will come out and destroy them both.
Phoenix is an implausible story but the sort of thing, that when handled by the right writer, director, and actors everything will feel grounded and the audience will be able to buy into some of the wildest twists. The emotional weight of this film rests on the shoulders of Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld, who play Nelly and Johnny, respectively. The majority of scenes take place between the two of them, and they do such a fantastic job wordlessly and effortlessly evoking the tension that exists in their relationship. Nelly is the only one of the two fully aware of their connection, but as time goes on, Johnny begins to have suspicions. He notices her resemblance to the wife and enlists her role in a conspiracy to pose as Nelly, whom he received word was killed in the camps. Johnny is also aware of the inheritance coming Nelly’s way and wants this stranger, who calls herself Esther, to help him, and he’ll split half with her.
This plan involves Johnny having to explain his relationship with Nelly to Nelly herself. It allows her to see what pieces of the history he reveals and which he edits out. I was reminded of the psychological and emotional tension Alfred Hitchcock could bring to his best productions, where the plot was a vehicle to explore the psyche of his characters. In that way, Phoenix plays like a post-War Berlin version of Vertigo. Nina Hoss as Nelly showcases a level of acting that we don’t get to see too often, that profoundly mature manner in which an actor can use a single look to convey decades of emotion, regret, and heartbreak.
The final scene of the film is a pitch-perfect note to end the movie on, a satisfying dam break of the tensions built over the story. In many contemporary movies, there is a trend of having an epilogue or endnote moment after the climax. That sometimes works but often prolongs the picture and softens the weight of that final emotional blow. Phoenix’s last moments, the absence of dialogue between its leads in exchange for Nelly crooning an old nightclub standard whose lyrics are the knife in Johnny’s heart, will destroy the viewer. The narrative is never rushed along but allowed, and that makes the conclusion the more affecting for it. Phoenix is a complex film that doesn’t search out happy endings, allowing its heroine to rebuild herself in the wake of unspeakable atrocities and ultimately begin life anew offscreen in some distant land.