★★★ / ★★★★
For a story about a severely disfigured survivor of a Nazi Germany concentration camp who must return to her former life with a new face, “Phoenix,” loosely based on Hubert Monteilhet’s novel “The Return from the Ashes” and directed by Christian Petzold, surprised me because I was not more emotionally invested in it. I was confused by this at first. By the halfway point, however, I considered that perhaps this is precisely the intention.
It is not an emotional film. There is an absence of sweeping revelations and realizations. It is silent for the most part. When something does change in a person’s thinking or belief, it can be missed easily. Hence, his or her actions tend to surprise. At which point does he or she manage to put two and two together? The work requires unwavering attention, patience, and empathy—especially because characters choose to take the long way in order to achieve their end goals. That journey forces us to understand them a little more. Isn’t that what movies are all about?
Certainly it has the template of a revenge-thriller: a reconstructed face, almost unrecognizable even to those who know her best, means a chance to get vengeance on the people who might have betrayed her to the Nazis, especially the husband who, curiously, was released from interrogation mere hours prior to our protagonist’s arrest. She is played by the luminous Nina Hoss, making one fresh decision after another as Nelly, who finds it unthinkable that her spouse, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), willingly gave crucial information that led to her capture.
Subtly, Hoss delivers two performances: as Nelly the survivor but is highly traumatized by what she had experienced in the concentration camp and as “Esther” pretending to be Nelly when she is with Johnny. He makes it clear to Esther that his goal is to acquire all of Nelly’s wealth (he believes her to be dead). Should they succeed, Esther would be compensated with $20,000. Observe Hoss’ eyes when Johnny tells her this. There is no anger there nor a hint of slyness. It is clear that the picture is not interested following the path of violence or thrills.
There is a lot of sadness here but the type that is not overt or melodramatic. It is the kind that sticks, lingering like a stubborn sickness. Notice, for example, shots of bombed-out buildings of postwar Berlin. The camera is not utilized as a magnifying glass. They just are, and there is a freshness to this decision. Instead of giving rise to emotions in obvious ways, the film’s mood is numb, in mourning over the loss countless lives. At times Nelly does not even feel like herself when she looks in the mirror. She may have lived through the concentration camp, but she feels dead inside.
It is apparent that a lot of deep thought is put into the execution of “Phoenix,” an elegant drama about identity, the illusions we create for others as well as the ones for ourselves, and people who no longer feel like they belong—in their own countries, in their own bodies. Particularly memorable is a supporting character named Lene who is played by Nina Kunzendorf. She makes a shocking decision about two-thirds of the way through that we are forced to think back—all the way to the first scene—on who she is, her motivations, her anger toward Germany, the Nazis, and those who chose to collaborate with evil.