Movie Review: Phoenix is a torturously beautiful story of rebirth

Classic noir meets holocaust tragedy, but all is not lost.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars
Starring Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld; directed by Christian Petzold
Now playing at Tampa Theatre

 tells the story of a woman who's emerged from the ashes of war with both brutal realism and implausible scenarios. Though some of it is downright hard to watch and the story moves a good deal slower than mainstream films, don't turn away from Phoenix. This moving German import pays off with a poignant revelation and sweet moment of reclamation.

The film follows Holocaust survivor Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a onetime singer who's been disfigured by a Nazi gunshot to her face. Still shocked and shaken, Nelly begins her post-war life by undergoing reconstructive surgery and the discovery that she has become unrecognizable further adds to the poor woman's trauma. 

Friend and fellow Jew Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) has been assisting Nelly in tracking down family records and helps her settle into a new boarding house with a good-humored frau. Because the rest of her family was killed, a large inheritance awaits Nelly, Lene feels her companion should honor the dead and her fellow Jews by relocating with her to Haifa, Israel, but Nelly wishes instead to find her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), a musician who used to accompany her performances. Lene discourages Nelly because Johnny had filed for divorce just before she was found in hiding and was also involved with betraying her to the Nazis.

When Nelly finds Johnny, he doesn't recognize her but there's a vague resemblance. The film nearly jumps the shark as he hatches a cruel plan that Nelly, for some reason, enthusiastically go along with just to be in his presence. Johnny's bullyish behavior and utter oblivion to his wife borders on soap opera melodrama. There's nothing making us root for him in any way whatsoever except Nelly's seemingly blind and naive devotion to him. It's a plotline that foists a display of female disempowerment (a blatant, intentionally discomfiting comparison to German/Jew oppression) and is difficult to watch. Fortunately, an abrupt (and unnecessary tragedy) shakes Nelly out of her pre-war dream state. 

Zehrfeld convincingly plays Johnny as a man so detached that he doesn't recognize his own wife's voice and presence. Hoss gives a powerhouse performance, conveying both the fragility and tenacity of her complex protagonist. Incidentally, Phoenix is director Christian Petzold's second film in a row after Barbara (2012) to star Hoss and Zehrfeld in leading roles.

Petzold's use of shadows, lighting and mirrored reflection recalls both Hitchcock and Orson Welles films. Hitchcock's Rebecca, for one, gave us a heroine dealing with a conundrum of identity, but the film really pulls us close to her. Petzold, on the other hand, sacrifices backstory for Art (capital "A" intentional). There seem to be a few missed opportunities in Petzold and Harun Farocki's script; they could have tastefully provided some exposition to elicit more understanding of Nelly and Johnny's story, and Nelly's motivations as she misguidedly plays along with her degenerate husband.

Moments of disbelief notwithstanding, Phoenix is a poetic and beautifully allegory that invokes the conflicted relationship German Jews have with their homeland. It's a good holocaust drama without overt horror — but a good deal of the trauma, which will stick with you long after it's over.

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