Christian Petzold’s Phoenix is an allegory to trauma, deceit and forsaken love. Confronted by the one who has betrayed your love, there is little resolution that is possible. Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), an Auschwitz survivor, returns with a disfigured face and is headed to a doctor in Berlin. She is told that her face can never be reconstructed back to what she looked like, so she must confront the truth of her new (forced) identity. Cared for by a Jewish Agency Officer, Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf), Nelly begins to orient herself to life after her return after the end of the war in 1945.
Lene helps her through her face reconstruction surgery and offers to help her travel to Palestine, the destined new country for all the Jewish people. The reference is subtle, but the trauma and pain that resulted in the desire for a homeland are very real and made evident. Nelly is not sure if Palestine is where she wants to be and begins searching of her husband. She sets out on the task of looking for the life she left behind, the life that she lost and the life that she desperately wants again.
She bumps into her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), at a bar, a place they used to frequent (may also be somewhere Nelly performed) and realizes that he doesn’t recognize her. He thinks she seems familiar and she quizzes him, but he does not make the connection. Instead, Johnny proposes that she help him get his hands on his dead wife’s inheritance, as she has some resemblance to the dead Nelly. He offers to share the fortune with her and tries to convince her to accept. Nelly is taken by his attention and in an attempt to reclaim her life, she agrees to partake in his plan.
What follows is a tragic and traumatic relearning of her own self, through the eyes of her husband. He teaches her how to walk, talk, dress, and be like Nelly. She watches him helplessly, for he is clueless to what really happened to her at the camps. She even prompts him once to help her practice some of the stories that people in the camps experienced, since she is sure to be questioned about life at the camps after returning home as a survivor. Johnny dismisses it saying that no one will ask her about it.
The anxiety and the trauma of a camp survivor are played brilliantly by Nina Hoss, who is restrained and damaged. She delivers a spectacular performance and is the heart of the film. Nina Kunzendorf also stands out in her role as the Jewish Agency Officer, who summarizes her disdain by saying that the Jews built Germany and then were gassed. Now they have come back and are ready to forgive all that happened. She disapproves of Nelly’s attempts to reconnect with her past, yet holds on to a secret till the end.
The film is laced with scenes of film Noir, as Petzold leaves his characters to saunter around spaces from their past. The intrigue of the film is neither overbearing nor obvious, yet there is this incessant need to know if Johnny will lever discover his wife’s true identity.
Nelly continues to play along with her husband’s plan, still unsure of his complicity in her arrest and whether she can reclaim his love and her life. The dramatic and tragic suicide by Lene leaves Nelly with the divulged secret that her husband had divorced her days before her arrest. Lene leaves behind the divorce documents with her death note to Nelly.
Petzold finally decides to play up the music to bring the story to a head and possible conclusion. As Nelly joins her family and friends back as a survivor who lived to tell her tale, her life is at a crossroads, for the one she wanted to come back to, isn’t who she thought he was.
Phoenix is playing at Cinema du Parc.