The title of Phoenix suggests a triumphant rebirth, but this German drama set in postwar Berlin feels more like the story of a ghost wandering among the living. In early scenes, director Christian Petzold (Barbara) keeps his camera far from his heroine, Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), as if out of fear — or respect. Even later, when she occupies the center of the frame, she retains a strange, spectral presence.
Nelly has just emerged from an experience unimaginable to most of us: Auschwitz. Formerly a glamorous cabaret singer, she survived a bullet to the face and has inherited enough from her family — all dead in the camps — to pay for top-flight reconstructive surgery. While Nelly's friend and caretaker, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), makes plans for the two of them to start a new life in Israel, Nelly remains fixated on the past. Bruised and altered by her surgeries, she floats through the wreckage of Berlin searching for her husband, Johnny — the man who may have betrayed her to the Nazis.
Loosely based on a French mystery novel (already adapted to film once in 1965), Phoenix jettisons most of the source's plot and exposition in favor of slow-burning mood. But the juicy central conceit remains. When Nelly finds Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), he looks at her and sees not his miraculously returned wife, but a stranger with an uncanny resemblance to her. Nelly plays along, calling herself "Esther," and Johnny enlists her in a grift: She will play the part of Nelly so he can get his hands on his "dead" wife's inheritance.
The twist recalls Vertigo and has all sorts of cinematic meta-implications. As he costumes and stages Nelly to impersonate herself, Johnny becomes a director manipulating an actress — yet Nelly has her own ulterior motives. When she asks Johnny whether he really thinks a recent camp survivor would look as he dictates — coiffed and confident, unlike the haggard shell of a woman before him — he laughs off the objection. But the audience hears it. Despite her efforts to reclaim the past, Nelly is realizing that she has changed, in ways that cast a harsh light on the world around her.
In an interview with Filmmaker magazine, Petzold notes that German cinema has rarely dealt with the immediate postwar period: "There is a fear to show what happened." Rather than depicting what provoked that collective repression, he goes on, "I wanted to make a movie about that fear." Indeed, a dread of the unseen past permeates Phoenix, making it into a horror movie where the horror never actually appears. We see that dread in Johnny's eagerness to believe that Nelly is not Nelly, in her compliance, in the expressions that flit across Johnny's face as she relates an anecdote from Auschwitz, pretending she heard it from someone else.
None of this would work without Hoss' performance. She rarely speaks in the first half of the film, yet her every movement portrays a broken woman — an alien, wraithlike presence in the city's rubble. She contrasts sharply with Zehrfeld's Johnny, who's still roguishly charming and forceful, despite his reduced circumstances. Will his machinations destroy Nelly a second time? Or does this troubled soul still have the potential for rebirth?
Phoenix's ending resolves that question with haunting economy. Moments of passion spark like live wires in this slow-paced, artful film — for instance, when Lene expresses her rage at being asked to "forgive" the German people, or when characters play the Kurt Weill song "Too Soon." (That tune embodies all the loss for which they have no words.)
Unlike last spring's Woman in Gold, Phoenix doesn't offer its protagonist even a symbolic victory over history's horrors. But it does suggest that refusing to ignore the ghosts is a small victory of its own.