A disfigured concentration-camp survivor (Nina Hoss), unrecognizable after facial reconstruction surgery, searches ravaged postwar Berlin for the husband (Ronald Zehrfeld) who might have betrayed her to the Nazis.
‘Phoenix’ is a psychological drama set in Germany in the aftermath of World War II, focusing on a woman who returns home after spending time in a concentration camp. The woman, Nelly (Nina Hoss), suffered horrendous burns to her face, rendering her barely recognisable until plastic surgery helps to make her resemble her former self. When she returns home, she sets out to track down her estranged husband, despite warnings from her friend (Nina Kunzendorf) that he may have played a part in her capture. Nelly was a musician before the war, as was her husband, and she begins by attempting to find him across various music clubs in the city which leads her to the titular club, ‘Phoenix’.
The film deals with themes of alienation and how a country copes with coming to terms with the sheer destruction and loss of life caused by the war. Through Nelly, we start to see the trauma and challenges facing someone trying to return to normality when their family and their people have been killed, and Nina Hoss is wonderful at conveying this in the central performance. Throughout the film, Hoss conveys a deep vulnerability, which is only exacerbated by the revelations about her husband. When she does track him down, he doesn’t recognise her, but recognises a resemblance enough to devise a ploy to get Nelly to ‘pose’ as his ex-wife in order to claim her inheritance. In lesser hands, this could fail dramatically, but Petzold reveals a steady handle on his material, and in Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld (who plays Johnny, Nelly’s husband), he has two actors capable of handling this challenging material with subtlety.
The film moves slowly throughout, and this is often to its detriment as we spend a lot of time building up to Nelly’s initial encounter with Johnny. To a certain extent this is necessary to build Nelly’s character and to help the audience understand just how shaken and disorientated she is by the circumstances around her, but it doesn’t make for riveting viewing. What it does do, however, is help to provide a rationale for why Nelly would go along with Johnny’s scheme as opposed to calling him out in the beginning. The film does grow into something deeply intriguing once Nelly and Johnny are reintroduced and it’s thrilling to see Nina Hoss’s performance adapt as she slowly starts to gain agency and starts to see through her husband’s façade.
I’ve seen the film’s conclusion criticised in other places, but I found it to be particularly powerful and in keeping with the subtle and low key nature of the way the film had developed to that point. Overall, I found ‘Phoenix’ to be too dull at times to recommend, but there are interesting ideas at play and excellent performances from the leads, and it does start to build on the promising premise in the second half of the film.
Directed By: Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zerhfeld and Nina Kunzendorf