Out of the ashes of summer moviegoing emerges a masterpiece.
“Phoenix,” by the German filmmaker Christian Petzold (the Oscar-nominated “Barbara”), is a post-World War II drama set in Germany where the bombed-out streets of Berlin are strewn with rubble and shame.
Though there have been many Holocaust dramas, seldom has a film plunged into the aftermath like this. “Phoenix” resurrects this world — horror, the morning after — with a mesmerizing tale of broken, and reclaimed, identity.
Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss, her sixth film with Petzold) is a Jewish nightclub singer returned to Berlin from Auschwitz by her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf). Her face, covered in bloody bandages, has been badly disfigured. She’s brought to a doctor for facial reconstruction. Before going under the knife, the doctor asks if “a Jewess like yourself” wouldn’t rather look like — become — someone else.
Nelly doesn’t hesitate: She wants to look as much like herself as possible. But after the surgery, she’s unrecognizable. And as interactions like the one with the doctor prove, Germany is already doing all it can to forget the atrocities of the past. Not once will Nelly be asked what it was like in a concentration camp.
It’s a harrowing homecoming. Many of those she’s returning to were either Nazis or informants.
Nelly soon seeks to find her husband, a former piano-player named Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), a gentile whose betrayal may have sent Nelly to Auschwitz.
When she finds him in a smoky club named the Phoenix, he’s working as a busboy and doesn’t recognize her. She doesn’t reveal herself. But Johnny thinks she looks enough like his wife (he believes she’s dead) to pose as her so he can collect the inheritance.
The film, which Petzold and Harun Farocki adapted from Hubert Monteilhet’s1963 novel “Return From the Ashes,” moves into this astonishing, “Vertigo”-like story that would have amazed even Hitchcock. From his subterranean hovel, Johnny teaches Nelly how to act like his wife and how to appear like a camp survivor. It’s a macabre act, he wants. She need only meet a shallow level of faux-authenticity: No one wants to know.
That he fails to realize Nelly — not from her perfectly matched penmanship, let alone her voice — stretches the suspension of disbelief. But Nelly, too, is trying to suppress the past and her fears about Johnny.
She goes along with his scheme and we do, too, because Hoss’ performance is so powerfully delicate. She’s a quivering, crippled soul torn between an unthinkable past and an unimaginable future. Lene, who’s cataloguing the dead at the Jewish Hall of Records, has had enough; she’s plotting to move to Israel.
Petzold masterfully spins the layers of duplicity and denial until “Phoenix,” and Nelly, finally shake them off in a breathtaking climax that deserves a place among the finest in recent cinema. It’s a thundering finale to a profoundly mournful movie.
“Phoenix,” a Sundance Selects Films release, is unrated by the Motion Picture Association of America. In German with English subtitles. Running time: 98 minutes. Four stars out of four.
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