2014, PG-13, 98 min. Directed by Christian Petzold. Starring Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Imogen Kogge, Megan Gay, Kirsten Block.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Sept. 4, 2015
Identity is the theme that burns through the heart of German director Christian Petzold’s remarkable neo-noir Phoenix. There are others, such as betrayal and survival, but the loss of, the search for, and the reclamation of self drives this story that is ostensibly about a woman attempting to reclaim her life after the atrocities of World War II, but stretches deeper to concern a nation trying to come to grips with its horrific past.
The film opens with Nelly (Hoss) being escorted by her friend Lene (Kunzendorf) back to Berlin after surviving the Auschwitz concentration camp, a bullet to the head and a bandaged face being the superficial reminder of her nightmarish ordeal. It’s 1945, the war is over, and Nelly, a former cabaret singer, returns to a city that has been physically destroyed and psychologically gutted. As Nelly undergoes reconstructive surgery for her injury, Lene hatches a plan for the two of them to move to Tel Aviv together, a potential romance alluded just out of frame. But Nelly is preoccupied with finding her husband Johnny (Zehrfeld), a pianist who may or may not have sold her out to the Nazis. On one of her nighttime ventures through a bombed-out city, they finally meet, in a cabaret that shares the title of the film, but in one of many twists the film serves up, he does not recognize her. But what he does recognize is that Nelly looks an awful lot like his deceased wife, and if he can get her to play the part, well, did I mention that Nelly has an estate worth a lot of money and no other familial survivors? So Johnny approaches Nelly with a scheme in which she will pretend to be the person she already is in an attempt to retrieve the estate she already is entitled to. Is it a gambit on Nelly’s part to parse out Johnny’s true intentions or a desperate attempt to return to the normalcy that she had before the war?
Petzold’s narrative does not offer up easy answers. Even the subtext is handled subtly (one could get a lot of mileage out of the whole “phoenix rising from the ashes” metaphor, but thankfully Petzold keeps it close). Phoenix mines a Hitchcockian vein, but it is Hoss' sensitive performance and Petzold’s intelligently paced direction that makes this film shine.