Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) was arrested and sent to the notorious Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz in 1944 shortly after her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), was, too, arrested. She survived the camp, though badly disfigured, and returns to her bombed out home in Berlin. She undergoes radical facial reconstruction surgery, changing forever her appearance and her life as she rises again, like a “Phoenix.”
This is a very different post-WWII tale of survival as Nelly, her head completely swathed in bandages, is driven to her home by her close friend Lene (Nina Kunzedorf). She undergoes the painful surgery, demanding that the doctor give her back her face, which proves not possible. The facially altered Nelly begins to search for Johnny, despite Lene’s warning that he betrayed his wife.
Once Nelly finds Johnny, she realizes that he does not recognize her. Knowing that his wife must certainly be dead and that she has a sizable inheritance, he hatches a plot to have Nelly pose as…Nelly. This twist changes the whole tone of the film and I do not want to say more.
Nina Hoss gives an enigmatic performance as Nelly, never giving away her inner thoughts and feelings. Does she believe Lene? Or, is her mind clouded with her love for Johnny? You do not know until the end and, then, you are still not sure. Ronald Zehhrfeld’s Johnny is anything but an enigma. The workings of his mind are transparent as can be, making his motivations so obvious, you can understand his lack of recognition of Nelly.
German director Christian Petzold’s examination of Berlin, through Nelly’s eyes, just after the war, is somber, as is Nelly’s story. The bombed out city and the harsh life for the survivors are an effective backdrop for “Phoenix,” shot with dark hues of blues and browns. I give it a B.
Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss, "Barbara," "A Most Wanted Man") has survived a concentration camp with a face horribly disfigured by a bullet. Her friend, Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf, "Woman in Gold"), brings her back to Berlin for reconstructive surgery, but Nelly won't feel like herself again until she finds her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, "Barbara"). Lene tries to warn Nelly that Johnny was the one who betrayed her, but Nelly persists and finds him at the "Phoenix."
In his last film with cowriter Harun Farocki and star Hoss, "Barbara," Christian Petzold told another tale of duality and betrayal, its titular character showing one carefully controlled face in East Germany while yearning to be herself again in the West. In this adaptation of Hubert Monteilhet's novel 'Le Retour des cendres,' Petzold doubles down in a noirish melodrama that at first recalls "Eyes Without a Face" then steps into shadowy "Third Man" terrain on its way to "Vertigo" territory. With eerie production design that initially favors whites and blues, gradually going darker, agitating reds popping amidst calmer neutrals, the film is sprinkled with symbolic references to the two sides of Nelly.
We meet the survivor at an American checkpoint in Berlin (even the city is divided), where an American soldier demands to see Nelly's face, muttering 'sorry' and allowing passage once she's complied. After surgery ('I want to look like myself,' she tells a doubtful doctor) Nelly's bandages come off, horrible bruising yet to heal. The first place she asks Lene to take her is her former home, now a bombed out ruin where the pieces of a broken mirror give her her first glimpse of herself. 'I no longer exist - would you recognize me?' she asks. At the apartment Lene's procured for them with Elisabeth (Imogen Kogge, "Requiem"), Lene plays Kurt Weill's 'Speak Low' as they eat dinner, Petzold concluding the scene to the lyrics 'The curtain descends, everything ends.' (We later learn that Nelly was a singer, accompanied by Johnny on piano.)
Wearing a netted version of the fedora made famous by Dietrich, Nelly slips into Berlin's evening, searching, and spies Johnny, a waiter at the Phoenix club. She enters, but when their gazes cross, his goes beyond her, no recognition lighting in his face. (Cole Porter's 'Night and Day' is performed by dual singers in contrasting black and white costumes.) When Nelly forces a meeting, she is employed by Johnny to 'play' his wife in order that he may inherit her estate. She goes along, hoping the relationship will replay itself, but Johnny is seemingly determined not to recognize his wife, despite her passing with his engineered audience in her old red dress and shoes from Paris.
Petzold has set his film at a time when the German population was itself in a state of disbelief, trying to forge a new identity in the immediate past of a horrifying history. All three of his main characters are struggling, Johnny with poverty, Lene working to identify countless dead. Like many Germans, Nelly is refusing to acknowledge the truth. "Phoenix" is not only a cinephile's treasure trove, a throwback to the film's of the forties touched with a modern sensibility, but a canny psychological portrait of a defeated country.
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