It seems that any movie that deals with the Holocaust, either directly or indirectly, automatically assumes a special level of scrutiny. Undoubtedly the solemnity of the subject matter comes into play. There is also a caution towards anything that may be deemed exploitative or irreverent. I respect that although I do think the defensive stance can sometimes be a bit too harsh in judging a creative vision. That being said, I like that filmmakers are still exploring the Holocaust in unique ways.
Christian Petzold does just that. He directs and co-writes “Phoenix”, a simmering drama set in post-World War 2 Germany. Petzold favorite Nina Hoss plays a Holocaust survivor named Nelly who sustains a gunshot wound to her face while at Auschwitz. Once the concentration camp is liberated Nelly is cared for by her friend Lene (played with a calculated quietness by Nina Kunzendorf). Lene arranges for Nelly to have reconstructive surgery in hopes that she will look exactly as she did before. Unfortunately the trauma is too extensive and the surgeon can’t quite recreate her past appearance.
The two return to Berlin where Lene finds them an apartment. Lene tells Nelly that she is due a substantial inheritance and recommends using it to go to Palestine where as Jews they can feel safe. But all Nelly can think about is her husband Johnny (cryptically played by Ronald Zehrfeld). Against Lene’s wishes, Nelly seeks out Johnny who is working at a night club called Phoenix. What follows is a twisty, melancholic story that plays with the ideas of identity, betrayal, loss, and discovery.
One of my favorite things about “Phoenix” is the ever-present cloud of uncertainty and mystery. I wouldn’t call this a thriller, yet it has this potent, understated suspense that exudes an almost Hitchcockian vibe. We even get this from the characters particularly Johnny. The film lures us in to make judgements about him only to later cast doubt on our perceptions.
And then there are the performances, a collection of some of the year’s best. Hoss’ tempered, haunting portrait conveys a woman who is a shell of her former self but who desperately grasps to reclaim her former life. Hoss visualizes her mental trauma without an ounce of flashiness or mendacity. Kunzendorf is equally good in her handling of a character hurt and hardened by the atrocities and frustrated by the quick willingness to forgive. And then there is Zehrfeld who flawlessly works with the material to give us a character so fully hard to read.
These three performances keep the story moving at a hypnotizing slow boil right up to what is the most subtly devastating final scene of the year. The story sometimes pushes the bounds of implausibility yet it is never a problem within the film’s parable-like framework. “Phoenix” deals with the aftereffects of the Holocaust without digging too deeply into the particulars. Instead it stays focused on Nelly, a character every single one of us will have no trouble sympathizing with.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS