Phoenix chronicles the homecoming of a woman who has lost everything, including herself, after the Second World War. Adapted from the French novel Return from the Ashes, by Hubert Monteilhet, and directed by Christian Petzold (Barbara), the film is a twist on the standard stories that have captured one of the bloody stains of humanity’s history.
After being disfigured in a Nazi concentration camp, survivor Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) returns to a post-war Berlin to undergo facial surgery. Only able to attain a similarity to her previous appearance, Nelly resides with her faithful friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), in seclusion although longs to reunite with her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Searching through the ruble filled streets of the city for her lost love, her pursuit leads her to a nightclub called Phoenix where he has begun working under a new identity.
Although failing to recognise her, Johnny finds that she does bear a striking resemblance to his lost wife and concocts a plan that would use Nelly to impersonate herself in order to acquire the large fortune she has recently inherited. Blinded by love and ignoring Lene’s warnings that he may have been involved in her capture by the Nazis, Nelly is unable to resist and wishes to see first hand if he still loves her. Yet, as she continues the ruse, Johnny begins to transform her into her previous self, and she finds that perhaps not everything has been lost in the camp.
In reflection, the storyline of Phoenix seems fairly strange for a film that deals with the Holocaust, and would potentially feel more at home in some lighthearted romantic comedy, where Katherine Heighl must impersonate herself to win over the man of her dreams. But here, it works because of Hoss’ powerful performance that is so understated that you never question the absurdity of the story. She’s so completely fragile, yet her obsession with her love imbues her with a sense of courage that allows her to face the past and to question the wrongs done to her.
One of the more interesting storylines of the film is Lene’s, which plays more in the background as a commentary of life after the Holocaust. While Nelly’s journey forces her to self-analyze and question who she is, Lene’s forces her to question the world that has seen an almost complete loss of her family and friends. She looks towards moving to Israel to establish a unified Jewish State as a way of responding to and traversing the events of the war, yet even she finds that picking up the pieces is a grim task, and that she has more in common with the dead than the living.
The only real negative of the film is that it’s hard to watch such a tender and vulnerable character, such as Nelly, find herself in situations where she remains helpless. Continually hoping for to exhibit some form of power is a tiring experience, but her story is a deliberate journey in rediscovering herself regardless of how slow it may be.