June, 1945. Badly injured, her face destroyed, Auschwitz survivor Nelly (Nina Hoss) returns to her hometown, Berlin. She's accompanied by Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a Jewish Agency employee and Nelly's friend from pre-war days. Having barely recovered from facial surgery, Nelly ignores Lene's warnings and sets out to find her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) - the love of her life who is convinced that his wife is dead. When Nelly finally tracks him down, he recognizes nothing but an unnerving resemblance and doesn't believe it could really be her. Hoping to secure her family's inheritance, Johnny suggests to Nelly that she take on the identity of his late wife.
Review by Louise Keller:
Nina Hoss is mesmerizing in this potent drama in which identity is key. Director Christian Petzold, with whom Hoss collaborated in several films including Germany's Oscar nomination Barbara (2012), has beautifully adapted Hubert Monteilhet's novel with co-writer Haurn Farocki, delivering a tense psychological thriller in which truth and deception are bedfellows. Love, loss, life and death intertwine as Hoss's beautiful and expressive features dominate the screen.
When the film begins, Nelly (Hoss) has her badly damaged face wrapped in bandages, awaiting the plastic surgery that will present her with a new face and a new chance at life. Her nightmare in Auschwitz may be over but there is little to reassure her of her identity, her former life as a singer and the future. When asked what face she would like by her surgeon, she tells him that all she wants is to look exactly as she used to look.
There is a sense of desperation as Nelly searches the streets of Berlin at night for her pianist husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), her only link to the past, is adamant that Johnny betrayed her. Try the American sector, the blind violin busker suggests; Phoenix is the name of the club where she finds Johnny.
The story's premise in which Johnny does not recognize his wife, but notices a semblance is probably more effective in prose. However, in the vein of Kim Novak's transformation in Vertigo, the way Johnny schools Nelly to dress, look and behave like his wife (so he can claim the family inheritance) is nicely done. Pitzold's decision to allow the camera to rest on Johnny's face as he sees Nelly for the first time after her make-over is most effective.
There are many memorable moments, like the scene in which Nelly asks Johnny how should she answer if the family asks her to tell a story about her experiences from the concentration camp. The incident she relates is obviously something that happened to her. There's good chemistry between Hoss and Zehrfelt: Nelly, her heart on her sleeve and Johnny the emotion-less opportunist.
The tension mounts as the stage is set for the reunion with the family - Johnny has predicted what every reaction will be. Will the truth prevail? Will Nelly find out what really happened? Did Johnny betray his wife? And how will everyone else react, including Lene? And what of Johnny?
Hoss has an innate ability to convey much by doing very little and Petzold has created a wonderful film in which truth bubbles below the surface throughout.
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PHOENIX (2014) (M)
CAST: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Michael Maertens, Kirsten Block, Imogen Kogge
PRODUCER: Florian Koerner von Gustorf, Michael Weber
DIRECTOR: Christian Petzold
SCRIPT: Christian Petzold, co-writer Haurn Farocki (novel by Hubert Monteilhet)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Hans Fromm
EDITOR: Bettina Bšhler
MUSIC: Stefan Will
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Kade Gruber
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: December 3, 2015