Thursday, August 6, 2015

Phoenix (**)

Directed by Christian Petzold


The roots of the Holocaust are felt deeply in Christian Petzold's Phoenix, a quaint tale about a Jewish woman named Nelly (Nina Hoss) who survived Auschwitz, but not without suffering wounds so devastating that she requires facial reconstructive surgery. After the procedure - she asked to look exactly as she one had - she still feels like her identity has been wiped clean; her home has been bombed to bits, her face is like something completely different, and her loving husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) is nowhere to be found. Searching for Johnny, she finds him bussing tables in a club in the American sector. Despite the warnings of her loyal friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) that Johnny betrayed her to the Nazis, Nelly still comes face to face with her husband, who doesn't recognize her. Upon seeing her, Johnny finds her similar enough to his wife to propose a plan: pretend to be his deceased wife in order to secure her financial assets. What follows is a twisted narrative of a man transforming a woman into his wife, a woman he does not realize is already his wife. Hoss' performance as Nelly is profound, haunted and painful. Nelly's progressive knowledge of the moral corruption of the husband she used to love is the rock that this narrative is built on, but outside her performance, Phoenix has an austerity that's hard to puncture. Other than a dynamite closing scene that packs an emotional punch unlike anything in the film previous, Phoenix is a droll affair without much to separate it from the dozens of Holocaust-themed films we see every year. It's obvious that Hoss and director Christian Petzold have a great tandem going - this is their fifth film together, and their fourth consecutive - but this is far from their best collaboration.

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