In the critically acclaimed German film “Phoenix,” Nina Hoss shines as Nelly, a Jewish Holocaust survivor and a former nightclub singer. Following the liberation of Nazi concentration camps at the end of World War II, Nelly returns to Berlin under the care of her loyal friend and fellow survivor Lene Winter, played by Nina Kunzendorf.
Brutally scarred by a facial gunshot wound, Nelly is given the freedom to choose a completely new appearance through the reconstructive surgery. However, she asks to be made to look exactly like her former self and is appalled by the imprecise results — her former self no longer exists.
As she struggles to re-adjust to civilian life, Nelly begins to frequent local clubs in search of her husband Johnny, played by Ronald Zehrfeld, as she believes that reuniting with Johnny will allow her to return to her life before the tragedy.
Lene suggests in the film’s earliest moments that Johnny is responsible for Nelly’s arrest and imprisonment, but Nelly refuses to accept this possibility and pursues her husband with fervent determination.
However, Johnny does not recognize her and believes her to be a woman that merely looks like his deceased wife. He instead takes advantage of Nelly by hiring her to pretend to be his wife, so that he could collect her sizeable inheritance.
The plot of “Phoenix” is not exactly realistic. It seems unlikely that even the most oblivious husband would not be able to recognize his wife. Yet Nina Hoss’s sophisticated and flawless performance compensates for the implausibility of the plot. Hoss portrays Nelly as a woman detached from reality. Thrown into the unfamiliarity of a civilized society, Nelly becomes overwhelmed and confused in the strangeness of the postwar life.
In one particularly powerful scene, she holds a pair of expensive Parisian shoes with disbelief and awe. The possession of material luxuries seems outlandish and wrong in comparison to the desolation of the camps, something that Hoss effectively reveals in her expressions and movements.
Hoss excels in her role as a powerless and afraid character who is somehow still full of life. The brilliance of the performance is perhaps most evident in Hoss’s eyes, which manage to convey a genuine vulnerability, weariness and desperation.
Nelly’s eyes plead to be seen and understood, and they clearly demonstrate her desperate desire for her husband to recognize her.
Written and directed by Christian Petzold, “Phoenix” is an ode to a particular period, a ballad to the lost civilization of pre-World War II Germany.
The film is like a love song to the past, and the film’s soundtrack aptly enhances the narrative. Composed by Stefan Will, the film’s score underlines Nelly’s desire to return to her former life. The score is sentimental and reminiscent, dark and sweet. It elegantly illustrates the cherished memories, of an era that is impossible to return to.
Derived from the name of the Berlin nightclub where Nelly first re-encounters her husband, the film’s title itself is a metaphor for death and re-birth. “Phoenix” is about the revival and recovery of Nelly’s life, reflected through Berlin’s own revival in the aftermath of the war.
Nelly’s story is a representation of the betrayal, confusion and guilt that defined the postwar German society. Her story encourages us to examine what it means to endure atrocity and still carry on.
Petzold masterfully combines the film’s narrative with stunning colors and visual elements, solidifying “Phoenix” as a must-see motion picture. His tremendous attention to detail draws us entirely into the world inside the film, one that seems both realistic and dreamlike.
“Phoenix” questions how we heal after experiencing tremendous pain, how we continue when our reality is shattered and how our experiences change the core of our being. As viewers, we begin to feel Nelly’s emotions as though they were our own. We feel broken and set free throughout the course of the film.
If we allow ourselves to be touched by the narrative, we will continue to feel Nelly’s emotions when the film ends and we return to our own lives.
“Phoenix” is playing at Amherst Cinema through Thursday, Sept. 25.