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Phoenix (2015)
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by Jay Seaver

"Nina Hoss is fantastic as a woman Imitating herself."
4 stars

In a happy coincidence, the local boutique multiplex was playing "Phoenix" and the new restoration of "The Third Man" in adjacent theaters on the night when I saw the former, and the pair would make a fantastic double feature: Though the two noir stories set in a dangerous postwar Europe with boyish but untrustworthy old acquaintances arriving late have some fairly noteworthy differences, they've got just enough DNA in common to draw comparison, and "Phoenix" is good enough not to be embarrassed by it.

As it starts, Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf) is returning to Berlin with a heavily-bandaged passenger in the other seat. Her friend is Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a once-popular singer who was shot in the face while in Auschwitz. Having inherited plenty from her extinct family, she can afford the best reconstructive surgery, although the result is apparently not quite perfect. Indeed, when Nelly finds her husband Johannes (Ronald Zehrfeld) busing tables at the cabaret where he used to play piano, he does not recognize her - but decides "Esther" resembles Nelly enough that, with the proper training and grooming, he can impersonate his presumed-dead wife so that he can collect her inheritance, which certainly plays into Lene's belief that "Johnny" betrayed Nelly to the Nazis.

The title of Phoenix refers to resurrection, and the screenplay by Harun Farocki and director Christian Petzold (based upon a novel by Hubert Monteihet) plays a bit with that word's prefix at the start, discussing whether Nelly's surgery is best described as "reconstruction" or "recreation". Everybody in this film is trying to put Nelly back together, though each their own way and seldom with pure motives: Johannes, most obviously, wants to recreate a version of Nelly that will be useful to him, and while Lene's motives are far more altruistic, she is also anxious to rebuild her friend in her own image, more embracing of her Jewish heritage to the point of emigrating to the nascent Israel with her. Nelly, meanwhile, is drawn to what she was before, insisting on visiting the rubble of her former home and recreating what photographs she can. Obviously, none can fully succeed; even as Nelly struggles to become herself again, she realizes that she is irrevocably changed.

That's obvious, not just because people can't recognize her without a carefully prepared artifice. it comes through with every bit of Nina Hoss's typically excellent performance. At times, it can be obvious in a way that matches the plainly horrific situation that Nelly is coming from - her stiff, short steps suggest other injuries or that it's taking her legs time to rebuild the strength to support her in a way that reflects spirit as well as body - but much of the time, the audience is watching for action on her face. It's immobile and scarred early on, but gains expression as the film continues. You can see the woman behind it grasping and having trouble with reality, drawing on thinner and thinner reserves of hope, using "her" and "me" in ways that sound natural until Lene calls Nelly on it.

Hoss is the star of what is not quite a three-person show, but which at times seems to come close, and her co-stars are very good as well. Nina Kunzendorf's Lene spends much of the movie playing mother hen to Nelly, and she's at times the film's most intriguing character, showing an affection that seems to go beyond simple friendship but could just be clinging hard to what friends are left. There's a steely resolve to how eager she is to leave everything behind to go to Palestine that still feels like flight a times, both a foundation and its crack. Ronald Zehrfeld, on the other hand, balances Johnny's clear amorality with tiny hints of the man that Nelly wants him to be, showing a boyish charm that is much diminished but not vanished as a result of the war. Johnny's no Harry Lime because he doesn't show quite the same relish for exploiting the post-war confusion, but he's potentially an interesting sort of danger to Nelly, an anchor rather than an engine.

Aside from an early appearance, Petzold and company do take a bit of time getting to Johnny, and the first half of the movie suffers a bit, not for his absence, but for the lack of other things for Nelly to do. Perhaps her idleness as she heals is meant to be a sort of torture, an unreal situation where she has little but memories and fears to keep her company; it achieves some success there. Still, it's difficult to miss how things click into place a little more when Johnny appears; even if the film never becomes very active, there's tension and reason to worry. It may be a quiet thriller, but the impact of even the smallest thing on the characters is amplified.

Petzold and his crew emphasize that even more with their visual take on postwar Germany. The Phoenix Club, for instance, is a gaudy cabaret surrounded by rubble, and the sharp nighttime lighting around it creates thick shadows. There's an attempt to return to pre-war glamour that can't help but ring hollow, especially as a scarred Nelly makes her way backstage. The vast size and emptiness of the apartment she shares with Lene demonstrates how they have lost people while Johnny's microscopic studio suggests he has mainly lost things and prestige. Allied soldiers feel just as predatory as German black marketers. The jazzy, though often sad, soundtrack is a highlight, and though Nelly and Johnny are both referred to as musicians, Petzold saves a demonstration of that for the last possible moment.

That moment is a haunting coup de grace, the culmination of both a traditionally suspenseful and very restrained final stretch. The ending, at least, is perfect, enough so that this film can stand proud whether compared to an all-time classic or "Barbara", Petzold's & Hoss's previous excellent collaboration. They're a fine team building a fine catalog.

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originally posted: 08/19/15 11:22:31
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2014 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 European Union Film Festival For more in the 2015 European Union Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/05/16 brian Idiotic man can't recognize wife's embrace, kiss, mannerisms, verbal idiom, etc. Stupid. 2 stars
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