Phoenix opens with a couple of women, returning to post-war Berlin, being stopped at a checkpoint by necessarily cautious American soldiers. Soon after, we cut to a hospital where one woman is being offered a choice of several faces. Disfigured by a non-fatal bullet to the head she is tasked with deciding ‘who’ she would like to be in her new reality. In the shadow of World War II, Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a German Jew who has survived the horrors of a concentration camp, returns to a broken city to attempt to piece together the fragments of her own ruined life. Nelly’s devoted companion Lene exhorts her to cut all ties with Germany and begin afresh with property offered to her in Palestine but Nelly is determinedly fixated upon finding her lost husband Johnny ( Ronald Zehrfeld)—presumed dead, along with the rest of her family—the man some suspect of being the one who turned her over to the Nazis. We follow Nelly as she roams unsafe streets and unsafe relationships on a mission to find her own ash covered core, wherever and however it might be found.
Reteaming with Barbara leads Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld, Christian Petzold produces another fascinating drama of opaque loyalties and shaded identities. Cinematic peer of such melodrama maestros as the Dardenne brothers and Asghar Farhadi, Petzold’s command of dramatic tension is as firm as ever despite the lengthy telegraphing of what, to the characters at least, is quite the plot twist. To my mind the believability of the film’s central Clark Kentish premise and whether or not you can see where the narrative is heading are moot points. Nelly’s internal psychology is where all the mystery and drama arises and this playground is left wide open to interpretation, even if the screenplay leaves some possible keys to motivating factors. As when Nelly justifies herself to Lene saying thoughts of her husband are what got her through the trauma of the camp; a trauma whose effects can be seen across the breadth of Nelly’s seemingly counter-intuitive decision making.
The chemistry evinced between Hoss and Zehrfeld in Barbara remains a strength in Phoenix though both performances are clearly attuned to the messy situation and complicating history at play. Nina Kunzendorf as invested friend Lene does an excellent job of conveying dependence laced concern as Nelly’s self-appointed advocate and protector. The film has a more staged feel than Petzold’s last but the titular thematic thread of new life arising from the ashes of the old seems to suit this treatment. The filmmaker continues his bent for almost completely diegetic sound making good use of the sounds of footsteps, overheard conversations and the like. As music is quite central to the character background of Phoenix Nelly regularly encounters musical interludes in the various locales she traverses. Be it threadbare cabaret song and dance in a seedy club servicing US occupying soldiers or a classical violinist busking for his bread on the ruined Berlin streets Petzold and musical coordinator Stefan Will make very apt song choices with which to punctuate the narrative including a particularly moving application of Ogden Nash’s ‘Speak Low’.
I find Petzold’s brand of open-ended psychological investigation a refreshing antidote to thrillers which reveal a set of twists only to have them neatly tied off in the end. We are each forced to bring our personal perspective to Nelly’s driving ‘why’—a revealing process on our own attitudes regarding identity. This is the kind of film that rolls around your thoughts long after viewing from a set of cine-collaborators with whom I look forward to a lengthy history.
Rating: M Adult themes.