Christian Petzold’s German movie, Phoenix, unfolds in postwar Germany as a German Jewish survivor of the Holocaust scours Berlin for her missing husband. By chance or design, the film opens in Canada on May 8, just a day after the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.
Nelly (Nina Hoss), the survivor, has emerged from the Nazi concentration camp system with a disfigured face. When she first comes into view, she’s sitting in the back seat of a black sedan, her face fully bandaged. She’s accompanied by her friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), who’s obviously concerned about her welfare.
Nelly, a singer, was married to Johannes (Johnny) Lenz, a pianist who divorced her in 1944. Before they split up, he hid Nelly in a houseboat, hoping she could survive the Nazi reign of terror.
Now, a few years later in postwar Berlin, Lene brings Nelly to a plastic surgeon for a makeover. Nelly wants her former face back, but the surgeon has other ideas. After the operation, the old Nelly is gone, at least in terms of appearance.
Phoenix, shot in a film noir style reminiscent of a late 1940s Hollywood movie, is dark and moody. Berlin, having been heavily bombed, is in utter ruins. Amid the rubble, Berliners find solace in simple pleasures.
Lene, however, is fixated on the future. She wants to start life anew in Haifa or Tel Aviv and trusts Nelly will join her. For Lene, Germany is part of the past. Nelly, still shell-shocked by her wartime experiences, is focused on finding Johnny, the man who abandoned her and may have even betrayed her.
By luck, she finds Johnny — who bears a passing resemblance to the young Clark Gable — in a nightclub. But he doesn’t recognize her. The plastic surgeon has done his work well. But since Johnny thinks she resembles Nelly, whom he believes perished during the war, he offers her a proposition.
If she pretends to be his wife, who’s eligible for a substantial inheritance, they can both enrich themselves. Nelly is ambivalent, but she cooperates, hoping to win back her beloved Johnny.
From this point forward, Nelly’s relationship with Johnny turns complex, convoluted and confusing, the line between reality and fantasy blurred.
Phoenix, somber and serious, is a nimbly directed film, with a fine cast, that explores the emotional landscape of a country scarred by the scourge of Nazism.