“Phoenix” is a dark romantic melodrama about the Holocaust, an intimate study of guilt — survivor’s guilt, and survive-at-all costs guilt.
Nelly (Nina Hoss) survived the death camps — barely. She only returns to Germany after reconstructive surgery to repair the grievous bullet wounds to her face, a wounds the Nazis were sure finished her as they evacuated the camp.
Her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) nurses her through this, gets her back across the border (from Switzerland) and brings her back to post-war Berlin.
Nelly regards her surgery as more “recreation” than “reconstruction.” All she wants is to find her husband, the man she had to leave behind when she was arrested. This is the thought that kept Nelly, a singer, alive when all around her were dying.
She’s not hearing Lene’s blunt warnings about “Johnny.”
“Johnny betrayed you.”
She searches as she heals, but when she stumbles into her piano playing husband, he does not recognize her.
Johnny does odd jobs at the Phoenix club, a sort of Weimar/”Cabaret” throwback that entertains the locals and the American troops who occupy that sector of Berlin. But something about this woman he doesn’t quite recognize clicks. He befriends her and enlists her in a scheme. She will impersonate his late wife, Nelly and he will split her inheritance with “Esther,” as she calls herself. After all, he says (in German, with English subtitles), “There aren’t many Esthers left.”
Co-writer/director Christian Petzold (“Barbara”) manages a subtle tension as his players try to hide a various obvious payoff that this premise promises. Zehrfeld’s Johnny is poker-faced, straining not to give away a flash of regret, remorse or longing as this woman reminds him more and more of a wife he is sure is dead.
Hoss (“A Most Wanted Man”) brings layers of ache to Nelly. As Esther, she questions and probes. She is trying to trip Johnny up, but only half-heartedly. Does she want to know that he betrayed her, can she left him off the hook or is he innocent of what Lene is convinced he did?
What trips this troubling and engrossing picture up are production values. It’s mere months after the war, and the street rubble is ever-so-neat, everybody is in nice clothes, and even the seedy bars and apartments feel production-designed to death. Every vintage car is in mint condition, freshly polished on the rubble-strewn streets, every GI has a German accent, not an American one.
The players and the situation (taken from a Hubert Monteilhet) novel make “Phoenix” an approachable, less-grueling Holocaust story than most. But the unreality of it all undoes some of that and makes this brief, smart and heartfelt story feel like a pulled-punch.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements and brief suggestive material
Cast:Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf
Credits: Directed by Christian Petzold, script by Christian Fetzold and Harun Faroki, based on the novel by Hubert Monteilhet . A Sundance Selects release.
Running time: 1:38