An exceptional film thanks to strength of character and might of performance. It shouldn't be missed.
It has been 70 years since World War II ended, and yet the subject, its periphery, and its aftermath remain a collective fertile ground for modern filmmakers. From documentaries to adaptations to fictionalized dramas, the war that was fought and won by the greatest generation continues to mesmerize people on both sides of the camera. The latest dramatic entry to leverage World War II is Christian Petzold‘s superb drama, Phoenix.
Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) is a concentration camp survivor who has returned to Berlin after the war, but that survival has come with a cost: her face has been horribly disfigured. Only her confidante, Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf), knows she is even alive (the rest of her immediate family is dead). When Nelly pursues reconstructive surgery, she is insistent on remaining as true to her original appearance as possible. Her goal is to find, and reunite with, her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). This is despite Lene’s suggestion that Johnny might have been the one to turn her over to the Nazis in exchange for his own freedom.
Nelly remains undaunted, but when she finally finds her husband, he doesn’t recognize her; her appearance is different enough that there is a resemblance to her past self and nothing more. More alarming, she realizes she doesn’t recognize the person he has become. When he asks her to pose as his wife in an effort to claim an inheritance, Nelly becomes as scarred emotionally as her face was scarred physically.
With cowriter Harun Farocki, director Christian Petzold adapts Hubert Monteilhet’s novel “Le retour des cendres” (“Return from the Ashes”) into a haunting film about love, betrayal, and how one woman’s identity becomes the ultimate casualty of war.
There is a pall of desperation that hangs heavy over Nelly Lenz. She is a woman reeling from what she has been through, and desperate to cling to any semblance of her past. She cannot get back the family she once belonged to; they are dead. She cannot recoup the money she has lost; it is gone. She cannot reclaim her dignity; that was left in a camp that is better left forgotten. She’s even in denial about her faith. The only thing she has left that can define her are her looks and her husband. One face and one person. Without either of those, as she so sorrowfully puts it after visiting a bombed-out building from her past, “I no longer exist.”
That Johnny doesn’t recognize her anyway is the diabolical twist of Phoenix: neither her face nor her husband (or who she thought her husband was) can ever be quite what they used to be. There’s a resemblance in both cases, but they are ghostly.
Petzold is clever to not show what Nelly looked like before her ordeal. This, coupled with whatever the ravages of imprisonment may have done to her body, makes acceptable the fact her husband doesn’t recognize her. Mostly. The notion troubled me, to be honest. I wondered how a man—a man who has no confirmation his wife is dead—could see a woman who so closely resembles her that he would use her in an inheritance scam, yet not wonder if it could possibly be her? The question is answered with a wonderful subtly that I dare not reveal here. The final scene, one of deep, sincere, incredible drama, not only brings the film to a remarkable close, it solidifies who Nelly is and that she knows who she is now. Other than that final reveal, the film simmers but never boils, which at times can be frustrating.
Hoss is tremendous here—a perfect blend of haunted and hopeful, letting those two things slowly shift in dominance as her character’s circumstances evolve. Her scenes in the film’s second half are better still, as she is forced to further struggle with identity, being reduced to pretending to be someone that is learning to be her, all while coping with her husband’s lack of recognition, and all in the name of an inheritance scam. Her performance is devastating.
If every WWII or WWII-adjacent film is going to be this caliber, filmmakers can leverage the war for the rest of time if they want. Phoenix is an exceptional film thanks to strength of character and might of performance, and it shouldn’t be missed.
Phoenix opens theatrically July 24th.