Rated PG-13 | Time: 1:38
In German with subtitles
“Phoenix” takes place in 1945 Berlin, and the setting is a character all its own — a city filled with rubble and American GIs, where the war has ended but the horrors are everywhere. It’s home, such as it is, to singer Nelly Lenz, an Auschwitz survivor.
When we first meet Nelly (Nina Hoss), her head is wrapped in bloody gauze. She has miraculously survived a gunshot wound to the face, and a close friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), is ferrying her to Berlin for reconstructive surgery.
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So begins the bleak, beguiling German drama, which would be preposterous if it weren’t so captivating.
After the surgery, Lene urges Nelly to accompany her to Haifa or Tel Aviv to help create a Jewish state, but Nelly has other plans. She wants to track down her beloved husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), even though Lene insists he’s the one who turned Nelly over to the Nazis. The twist is that Nelly doesn’t look precisely as she used to, and Johnny, who thinks his wife is dead, doesn’t recognize her.
So Nelly introduces herself as Esther. Johnny is brusque and standoffish — “there aren’t many Esthers left,” he says matter-of-factly — but also clever enough to hatch a plan to cash in on this supposed stranger’s resemblance to his late wife. Given that Nelly’s entire family was killed during the war, she would inherit a hefty sum if she were alive. If Esther pretends to be Nelly, he reasons, the pair can split the windfall.
And so, in a “Vertigo”-like move, Johnny sets about teaching Nelly how to be more like Nelly. He puts her in a red dress and matching lipstick; he critiques her unsteady walk and gives her handwriting exercises. And all the while, Nelly hopes he’ll wise up to her true identity.
This all sounds highly improbable. Is it possible that Johnny doesn’t recognize his own wife? How can Nelly be so starry-eyed over this jerk? And yet, the actors make it all entirely believable. Nelly explains to Lene that Johnny was her beacon while she was living a nightmare; she wouldn’t have survived without the idea that one day she would return to him.
It helps that Hoss portrays Nelly as a shell of a woman. Her slender frame slightly hunched, she looks tentative and lost — just another ghost wandering around Berlin, trying to make sense of where she fits now that everything has changed. Hoss’ breathtaking portrayal, especially in the film’s final minutes, makes it clear why director Christian Petzold has made a habit of working with her. (The pair collaborated on both “Barbara” and “Yella.”)
Petzold, for his part, has total command of tone. It would be easy for such an outlandish plot to cross the line into melodrama, but “Phoenix” never comes close. His restraint makes space for a haunting world of intrigue to come into focus. We’re never certain what the characters are thinking, and he intentionally leaves images out of the frame. When an American soldier aggressively demands to see what’s underneath Nelly’s bandages, for example, all the audience can make out is the man’s sudden apologetic expression. There’s power in leaving so much to the imagination.
“Phoenix” takes its time and leaves us guessing until the final electrifying scene. Did Johnny really betray his wife? Will Nelly use the gun that Lene gave her? As with the war, there’s a resolution, but the devastation is still hard to shake.
(At the Cinetopia, Tivoli.)
| Stephanie Merry,
The Washington Post