At the start of Phoenix, a concentration camp survivor returns to post-war Berlin in 1945 with her head wrapped in bandages and gauze, like Claude Rains in The Invisible Man. Nelly (Nina Hoss) managed to survive Auschwitz, but at a great cost: A gunshot to the face left her scarred and disfigured. With the help of her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) and the fortune she inherited from her family (they were all killed in the war), Nelly secures reconstructive surgery in Switzerland that will make her normal again, although her face will look different than before.
The procedure sends the dazed woman into an existential funk (“I no longer exist,” she proclaims) although her doctor encourages her to make lemonade. “A new face is an advantage,” he tells her. “You’ll be a new, different person!” Nelly has lost everything: Her relatives, her friends, her home. Her only hope to restore her identity is to reunite with her musician husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), even though Lene strongly discourages her and asks her to relocate to Palestine instead.
But Nelly won’t be denied. Her life is in ruins, like the bombed-out remnants of the city around her. She searches for Johnny at clubs and musical halls, at times putting herself in grave danger (the war may be over, but the lingering anti-Semitism is not). But if she does find him, will her husband even recognize her?
In their sixth film collaboration, Hoss and director Christian Petzold (Barbara, Jerichow) have turned Hubert Monteilhet’s source novel Return From the Ashes into a highly cinematic concoction that relies on images to muster its considerable power. In one sense, Phoenix is an ingenious reworking of Vertigo, but Hitchcock’s themes of romantic and sexual obsession have been jettisoned in favor of a broader exploration of the psychological toll of war — the lengths it pushes us to, the things it makes us capable of and the ways in which we learn to live with our guilt.
Lene warns Nelly early on that Johnny is a worm — he may have turned her in to the Nazis to save himself — but Nelly won’t be deterred. For her, time has stood still since the day she was sent away, and she’s confident she and her husband only need to see each other to pick up where they left off. Sometimes, romanticizing our tragic reality is the only way we can start to accept it. The movie isn’t a thriller, but it still generates a strange sort of emotional suspense – an incredibly intense drama that makes you hold your breath, and it builds toward a knockout of a final scene in which the story is resolved with loaded glances and a song. By then, simple words have lost their capabillty to convey what these complex, tortured people are feeling.
Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf.
Director: Christian Petzold.
Screenwriters: Christian Petzold, Harun Farocki. Based on the novel “Le Retour des cendres” by Hubert Monteilhet.
An IFC Films release. Running time: 98 minutes. Strong adult themes. In English and German with English subtitles. Playing at area theaters.