German writer/director Christian Petzold (“Barbara,” “Jerichow”) continues to astound in his mysteriously brilliant, “Phoenix.” Starring Petzold’s frequent collaborators, the extraordinary Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld, this bleak look at life amidst the rubble of post-WWII Berlin takes on the dual themes of deception and whether a country and its individuals can actually rise from the ashes. Come Oscar time, this foreign entry deserves to be on the Best Foreign Film list.
Set in Berlin 1945, the film opens at night with a car driving through an American-sector checkpoint. Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) is bringing her wounded friend, Nelly (Hoss), to a hospital. Nelly’s head is completely wrapped in blood-stained bandages. The American soldier asks to see her face; insisting they unwrap the bandages in case she’s a war criminal. Choked up after seeing her bullet-ravaged face, he quietly lets them pass.
A successful reconstruction surgery gives Nelly a different face. But, Nelly can no longer recognize herself; thus she no longer feels like herself. The war and concentration camp broke down her humanity and stole her physical appearance.
Lene, a lawyer fighting for the rights of the war victims, tries to get Nelly to look forward. Lene’s goal is to move to Palestine, forget about the country that betrayed them. But for Nelly, she needs to regain her “self” first, and maybe to do this, she needs to regain the happiness she once had with her Gentile husband, Johnny (Zehrfeld).
Lene is no fan of Johnny’s. In fact, she harbors a suspicion that Johnny may have ultimately betrayed Nelly to the Nazis. Nelly, however, has no such thoughts.
Traipsing around the nighttime clubs in hopes of finding her piano-playing Johnny, Nelly puts herself at risk. But she ultimately does find him. Yet, Johnny doesn’t recognize her. In a Hitchcock-worthy spin on “Vertigo,” Johnny reveals a plan – to mold “this woman” into his long-lost wife, a concentration camp victim. And in success, Johnny can claim Nelly’s inheritance, which he promises to split with this “stranger.”
It’s a dangerous game of duplicity as Nelly plays Johnny’s game. Her goals are not financial of course, but rather she hopes to regain both his love and to find her true self. But doing this also leads to her piecing together the events leading up to her arrest. Will the final truth save or kill her? It’s a fitting analogy to a country that may not be strong enough to face the truth about all the atrocities that occurred during the war.
Case in point, when Nelly questions Johnny’s choices for his wife’s clothing and stories, he insists no one will ask her what happened while she was “away.” The inference is their German friends simply don’t want to know. One wants to forget the dark past and remember only the “good old days.” But can they forget, or more specifically should they?
Nelly must find the answer for herself in the powerfully haunting, “Phoenix.”
“Phoenix” is 99 minutes, Rated PG-13 and opens July 31 in Los Angeles at the Royal Theatre.