Phoenix (2014) — Image via hoehnepresse-media.de

Phoenix

Directed by Christian Petzold (2014)

As much of the critical commentary on Christian Petzold’s latest film, Phoenix, has noted, it takes quite a bit of suspension of disbelief to immerse oneself in the film’s improbable plot. Viewers who are able to do so, however, will find much to admire in Phoenix‘s enactment of a subtle sort of fantasy of confrontation, as its characters, living in the immediate aftermath of World War II in Germany, are forced to acknowledge the enormity of what had just happened in, and to, their country.

Phoenix (2014) — Image via hoehnepresse-media.dePhoenix centers on the actions of Nelly Lenz (frequent Petzold collaborator Nina Hoss), a Jewish Holocaust survivor who returns to Berlin with the help of her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), who managed to survive the war in Switzerland. Nelly’s face has been badly disfigured by a bullet wound, and Lene brings her to a plastic surgeon who, at Nelly’s insistence, tries to restore her old appearance but is only partially successful. Lene’s plan is for the two women to resettle in Palestine, using the money that Nelly is entitled to inherit from her many murdered relatives to help build a new Jewish state there. Nelly, however, has only one objective: to find her ethnically German husband, Johannes, aka Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), so they can restart their lives together.

Phoenix (2014) — Image via hoehnepresse-media.deThere are a couple problems with this plan. For one thing, Lene has uncovered some very serious reasons to doubt Johnny’s loyalty to Nelly at the time of her arrest by the Nazis. For another thing, when Nelly does find Johnny, he does not recognize her as his wife. Rather, believing Nelly to be dead but seeing that this seemingly unknown woman looks like her, he asks her to pretend to be his wife and help him claim her inheritance. Not knowing what else to do, Nelly goes along with the plan, and Johnny — in an obvious homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo — begins the process of teaching her to be the person she was before the war.

Phoenix (2014) — Image via hoehnepresse-media.deIn Phoenix‘s three main characters, we see three distinct approaches to coping with the horrors of Nazism and Holocaust. Johnny seemingly wishes to erase what happened, and the victims with it. Without a shred of evidence, he chooses to believe that Nelly is dead, and when the living Nelly, whom he is convinced is someone else, tells him a concentration-camp story, he chooses to believe her dubious claim that it was just something she read. In her own way, Lene also wishes to erase what happened by removing herself from the perpetrators. She goes through photographs of old friends, rigorously identifying those who became Nazis and victims, and the only future she can perceive is the promise of a brave new Zionist state far away from any reminders of the past.

As for Nelly, one can see her efforts to reclaim her prewar life as yet another way of avoiding reality. That is certainly how Lene sees things. On the other hand, one can also see Nelly’s actions as a sort of demand that what has been done to her be undone. It’s a demand that can never be realized, to be sure, but one that brings her into direct confrontation with the barbarity of what her country did to millions of its own people and how that barbarity manifested itself at a very personal level.

Hoss does an exceptional job of bringing Nelly to life, illuminating the many facets of her personality as she transitions from the shrunken, deformed survivor she is at the beginning of the story to the person who is able to carry off the film’s unforgettable closing scene. Her performance alone is enough of a reason to see Phoenix, and Petzold’s otherworldly evocation of the rubble and collective amnesia of postwar Berlin is worth experiencing as well. Anyone interested in a fresh take on the moral questions inherent in any Holocaust film would be well advised to check out Phoenix before it disappears from theaters.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.