Phoenix is a German film that earned over the top rave reviews from festival goers. Set in Berlin in 1944, the film stars Nina Hoss as a woman returning from a concentration camp. It’s beautifully photographed and has a very satisfying ending. Nina Hoss is wonderful in the part. I also give it high marks; it kept me holding my breath with fear. But I had a couple of complaints about the film.
The plot revolves around Nelly (Hoss) who returns to Berlin from a concentration camp. Her face is destroyed by a bullet. Her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) gets her to a plastic surgeon. Nelly wants her face to look as much like her previous face as possible. Both the doctor and Lene suggest that’s a bad idea and she should just move on to a new face and a new life. Nelly insists on coming as close as possible to her previous looks.
Lene is obviously a lesbian, and obviously in love with Nelly. She cares for her, finds them places to live in either Jerusalem or Haifa – whichever Nelly wants – if Nelly will only go to Palestine with her so they can live in a safe place.
All Nelly can think about is her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Memories of him kept her sane in the concentration camp. Lene tells Nelly he betrayed her, turned her in to the Nazis, but Nelly is undeterred. She must find him. He did even worse than turn her in to the Nazis, but Lene doesn’t tell Nelly about it until later.
Nelly stumbles around in the rubble of Berlin and finally spots Johnny. He’s mistreating a woman at the time. Still undeterred, Nelly finds a way to talk with him.
Johnny sees her but doesn’t recognize her. He thinks she looks enough like his wife that he can train her to fool people into believing she is. Then he can claim her inheritance, which is locked away in a Swiss bank. He promises to give her some money if she helps him.
Johnny never realizes this woman is his real wife. It strains all credibility. Her handwriting is the same, her eyes are the same. Doesn’t he notice the sound of her voice, her smell? He even kisses her once. Nothing. Other people see her and recognize her. Johnny? Nothing.
I’m not much of a history buff, but a Jewish woman getting out of Auschwitz and going to Berlin for medical care in 1944 doesn’t seem credible either. Since the filmmaker is German, I’m going to give him this one based on my probable ignorance.
As Nelly learns more and more about what a scheming liar Johnny is she continues to go along with his plan. This part of the plot was terrifying because as the viewer because I wanted her to throw him under a train or something – come to her senses. Nelly knew what she was doing all along. And because she did the film has that very satisfactory ending I mentioned.
Besides the straining at the seams of the willing suspension of disbelief being a problem, there was the problem of what Lene did when she thought Nelly was lost to her forever. I don’t want to completely spoil it, but I will say the worst lesbian trope comes into play.
In spite of my issues with the film, it is a good film overall – nerve-wrackingly, nail-bitingly tense.
Phoenix was directed by Christian Petzold, who has used Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld as the stars of other films. The director said that inspirations for the film came from Vertigo, Germany Year Zero, Out of the Past, film noir and the works of Douglas Sirk. If I recall Vertigo correctly, Jimmy Stewart is duped by a lie carried out by Kim Novak, who pretends to be someone she isn’t. The parallels are certainly there in Phoenix.