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
I haven’t heard of this, Keith, thanks for the solid review. The psychological plight of survivors is not addressed as much as the horrors of the death camps. I prefer them. One of the best Holocaust films for me is “Nowhere in Africa” probably because it’s not so much about surviving the ghetto or the camp but those that emigrated and hid.
Thanks Cindy. I loved this movie in large part because of what you said. It definitely deals with the psychological effects but in a very unique way. That combined with a slight Hitchcockian vibe really put this over for me. Big fan!
Been hearing a lot about this because it’s been popping up on a lot of people’s Top 10 lists so definitely interested in seeing it now.
Thanks! Very worthy film. Another one that came out of the blue for me. It has really stuck with since seeing it.
Great review! I have this in my Netflix queue, I just haven’t gotten to it yet. You’re right about Holocaust movies having a bit of a stigma, probably because there’s so many, but some are really well done. It’s unfortunate.
Brittani, DEFINITELY check this out. Couldn’t recommend it more. It’s a bit unusual (I’ll leave it at that) but I was so caught up in it.
Cannot wait to see this. It’s in my Netflix Watchlist, but I’ve been away from fast enough Internet to stream it! Nice review.
Hey thanks. I have no problems calling it a ‘must see’. To be honest I found it to be a bit of a surprise. It turned out to leave a really strong impression on me.
The final scene…oh, the final scene. And what an incredible Nina Hoss performance.
That final scene was absolute perfection. I sat completely glued to ever second of it. Great to hear from another fan of “Phoenix”.
I’m desperately trying to catch up with this and Bride Of Spies before the end of the year! I’m sorry I don’t have much to add by way of discussion as a result, but I did see Petzold’s previous film Barbara, also starring Nina Hoss; that’s worth a look if you can find it…a very intelligent cold war drama.
I really want to see Barbara. As for this one, its a gem. So, so good. Slow moving but in the best way possible. Hope you can catch up with it soon.
Pingback: The Top 10 Films of 2015 | Keith & the Movies
Ooooh you got me curious about this one Keith, I really should check this out. Hope you had a great Christmas.
Had a great one Ruth! How was the Big Apple?
This is a really good one Ruth. May be a little hard to find. I was able to catch it On Demand via DirectTV.
NYC was great though quite exhausting. Christmas day at Rockefeller Center was a bad idea as it was packed like Sardines.
I hope to find Phoenix on iTunes at some point.
It’s streaming now on Netflix. That is where I finally caught up with it. Crushing film but so well made and the performances are fabulous!
Finally saw this Keith.
Thanks for the recommendation. I liked it a lot, but I can’t say that I thought it was spectacular. I’d give it an 8/10. My review should be up in a few days
8/10 is pretty strong though. Glad you liked it. How about that quiet but powerful ending?
Yep. It let everything really sink in for the characters