PHOENIX (Christian Petzold, 2014)
IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at Third St., 212-924-7771
Lincoln Plaza Cinema, 1886 Broadway between 62nd & 63rd Sts., 212-757-2280
Opens Friday, July 24
Christian Petzold’s Phoenix is a mesmerizing noir set in 1945 Berlin, where an Auschwitz survivor tries to reestablish her identity, but going home turns into a strange, painful, and dangerous journey. Nina Hoss is riveting as Nelly Lenz, a nightclub singer who is the only member of her family to have made it out of the war alive. Reentering Germany from Switzerland, she seems like a ghost or a mummy, her face swathed in bandages after having been severely disfigured by a gunshot wound. Wealthy enough to afford special facial reconstruction surgery, she is offered the chance to look like anyone she wants; the doctor gently suggests an entirely new appearance would be best, but she defiantly demands her own face back. Cared for by a companion, Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf), a fellow Jew who helps Holocaust survivors and wants to move to Palestine with her, Nelly seems psychologically frozen, tentative and frightened of the future. Instead of looking forward, she decides to go back to her non-Jewish husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), now called Johannes. He has disowned his past so thoroughly that he doesn’t recognize Nelly as his wife, returned from the concentration camp, instead believing her to be a survivor who resembles her just enough to enable him to cash in on Nelly’s inheritance. As he grooms her to walk and talk like Nelly, reminiscent of what Jimmy Stewart does to Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, she begins finding out things about him that are deeply troubling, including the nightmarish possibility that he might have been the one who betrayed her to the Nazis.
Tense and unnerving, Phoenix was inspired by Alexander Kluge’s An Experiment in Love, Hubert Monteilhet’s Return from the Ashes, Harun Farocki’s “Switched Women,” and oral histories from the Shoah Foundation. (Farocki, who passed away in July 2014, collaborated with Petzold on the screenplay.) Hoss and Zehrfeld, who previously worked together in Petzold’s gripping 2012 psychological thriller, Barbara, have an appropriately uneasy chemistry, keeping things off balance as former lovers who pursue an unusual courtship, he unwilling to acknowledge what’s right in front of him, she desperate to be recognized for who she was, and is. It’s a kind of eerie cat-and-mouse game, with more than a touch of Stockholm Syndrome, that intelligently examines a fascinating German amnesia about the war and its victims on a very personal scale. Kunzendorf (Scene of the Crime, Years of Love) is excellent as Lene, a forward-thinking woman who wants to start a new life with Nelly yet is unable to drag her away from her obsession with Johnny, while Zehrfeld (Finsterworld) has just the right amount of trepidation as Johnny pursues his selfish goal. But Hoss, in her sixth film with Petzold (Jerichow, Something to Remind Me), is simply extraordinary, her every movement utterly captivating, portraying complex emotions with remarkable skill. And the ending is simply brilliant, unforgettable. Once it gets past a few minor incongruities, Phoenix rises high, a spellbinding story of a twisted relationship in 1945 Germany that calls upon ancient myth, modern psychology, a nation’s guilt, and love and longing for the past to evoke universal themes — while posing some very difficult questions for everyone.