Co-written and directed by Christian Petzold, Phoenix is based, somewhat loosely, on the Hubert Montelihet novel entitled Les Retour des cendres – Return From The Ashes. Set in post WWII Berlin, the film opens with a bassy, jazz-like score – the first hint of the noirish tones within the film – as Lene Winter escorts her friend Nelly through as US convey. Nelly, face covered in bandages from her time in a concentration camp, is taken to a hospital where, with her inherited wealth from her dead family, is going to have reconstructive, or rather recreative plastic surgery.
Given the choice to decided who she wants to look like, a catalouge of celebrity faces, Nelly begs to made to look like her old self. As she recovers from her surgery, and her facial scars begin to heal, she turns her attention to searching for her husband Johnny, hoping to be reunited with him. She finally finds him working in a club called the Phoenix, amongst all the rubble of Berlin and, well, that’s all I really want to say in terms of plot, out of risking spoiling it for somebody.
Phoenix is that type of film – the type which the less you know about it going in, the more you’ll likely be able to enjoy it. A twisty, quietly thrilling piece of film-making, Phoenix is a fantastic mystery that is allowed to be revealed slowly to us. Much like the ambiguity of the film’s characters – we’re constantly trying to guess who has the upper-hand – it’s difficult to work out which directon the film will head in. A slight hint of a ‘hell hath no fury’ revenge thriller toward the beginning of the film is somewhat misleading, but in a good way – Phoenix finds its thrills within an emotionally charged story, that culminates in a most touching way.
Many movies have dealt with the horrors of WWII and its aftermath, but I can’t remember seeing one which deals with it in such a sensitive and moving way as Phoenix does, in quite some time. Petzold’s screenplay, co-written by Harun Faroki, is interested in the idea of rising from the ashes in a new form, and explores the idea of identity. National identity is touched upon as Nelly must decide whether to leave Germany for good, or stay in her home country that was responsible for her inprisonment at a concentration camp.
What’s more thematically interesting though, is the idea of personal identity, the debate as to what a person a person – the internal or external? Nelly is adamant that she wants to have her own face back, as if without her looks, she would simply not be the same person. Yet, even with her recreated face, which has resemblances of the old Nelly, she’s clearly a changed person after having survived the horrors of the holocaust. This is where one of the central themes, forgiveness, comes into play, as Petzold asks whether or not you can go through something so terrible and forgive those responsible – friends, partners, or country alike.
Deeply rich with vehemence and intrigue, Phoenix also has three remarkable central performances from Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, and Nina Kunzendorf. Hoss and Zehrfeld are particulary riveting as Nelly and Johnny, with Hoss providing a masterclass in nuance from beginning to end. It’s their performances and the different textures of Phoenix that make it such a must-see. It has all the great twists and turns you’d expect from a film noir, but with an added emotional sucker punch that will stick with you for a long time.
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