Christian Petzold explores the trauma of the Holocaust in a deeply
psychological way in "Phoenix," a drama that unfolds in the aftermath
of World War II as a woman with a new face and the opportunity for a
fresh start after surviving the death camps must attempt to actually
put concept to practice.
Petzold regular Nina Hoss stars as Nelly Lenz, a Holocaust survivor who returns home to a demolished Berlin after the war following successful facial reconstructive surgery. She lives with her close friend, also Jewish, named Lene (Nina Kuzendorf), who talks of a plan to start a new life in what will shortly become Israel, but Nelly is preoccupied with finding her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the non-Jewish jazz pianist whom she was taken from during the war, but who Lene says actually betrayed her to the Nazis. When Nelly finds Johnny, he doesn't recognize her, but the resemblance is uncanny enough that Johnny conspires to make her look like her old self in order to get her family fortune out of a Swiss bank. Nelly goes along with the ploy, hoping for the truth and that Johnny might realize it's actually her.
The premise borrows from parts of Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," but there are no thriller elements in "Phoenix," just psychological drama and a good deal of suspense between Nelly and Johnny as she becomes more and more like "the old Nelly." This premise provides a brilliant juxtaposition with the Nelly character on the whole, someone who desperately wants to become her old self and have her old life back, but of course, having lived through one of the worst horrors in human history, it's not so simple.
Hoss hauntingly puts on this persona of a woman oddly hopeful yet deeply traumatized. Nelly is a shaky, uncomfortable character to watch, yet fascinating all the same. In her encounters with Johnny, we have the benefit of knowing what she knows and getting to see how she handles being so close yet so emotionally far from the man she loved. We see her hopeful that Johnny will connect the dots, and despondent as she struggles to inhabit the woman she once was. Petzold writes so much emotional subtext into this story and Hoss hits every note no pun intended (as her character was a singer before the war).
Music plays a rather critical role in the film as well. In addition to Johnny and Nelly's past as musicians and their reunion in the film at the aptly named Phoenix night club where we hear lots of music, Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash's "Speak Low" figures prominently into the story, setting a distinct tone that echoes throughout the soundtrack. Its lyrics, as well, prove all too relevant to the story without being heavy handed at all. It is one of the better and most memorable uses of a song in recent memory.
"Phoenix" plays out uneventfully, but Petzold allows the drama to unfurl in poignant fashion, revealing a story about identity and love and how time can change it all, seemingly on a whim, causing irreversible changes in our lives. It's a sobering message, but one with a truth that runs deep.
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