A strange and haunting story
by Martin Hafer
When I was about to watch Phoenix, I was very apprehensive. I’d read about the plot and it was a story about the Holocaust. I have already seen many, many, many films about this period and while films like The Shop on Main Street and Schindler’s List are great films, they also take a lot out of you emotionally. Plus, with so many great films about this era, I wasn’t thrilled with seeing yet another. Fortunately, writer-director Christian Petzold, managed to make something that was truly unique and worth seeing–and I really appreciate that.
As Phoenix opens, World War II is now over and a heavily bandaged woman is being driven to a German hospital. It seems that this woman, Nelly (Nina Hoss), has been through Hell. She’d just spent time in a Nazi concentration camp where her face was beaten so severely that she needs extensive plastic surgery just to look human again. The doctor advises her to pick any sort of face she’d like but that she shouldn’t try to look like the woman she was before, since the doctors can never get it quite right. Despite this warning, Nelly insists and the surgery is a success. She has a lovely face, but the doctor is right … she doesn’t look exactly like her old self.
Following surgery, Nelly has a lot of questions about her former life. She’d been in hiding for much of the war and was only discovered in 1944. But how did the Nazis learn that she was there? Who betrayed her? Lene, Nelly’s companion and close friend (how close we are never exactly sure), advises Nelly to not worry about this–that she should just leave Berlin and move to Palestine with her. But Nelly has to know. Was it her husband or one of her friends that sent her to the camp?
Soon Nelly begins exploring the streets of Berlin looking for any traces she can find of her husband, Johnny. The city is in ruins—homes destroyed, people are out of work and her search seems futile. However, Johnny was a piano player and she begins searching nightclubs and street corners where folks eked out a living playing music for passers-by. Eventually, she spots Johnny. Naturally she recognizes him but he cannot recognize her because she’s changed so much. Several more times Nelly visits this nightclub–remaining in the shadows and just watching Johnny. Eventually, he approaches her–which is very strange. Does he recognize her? No, but he recognizes that she looks much like his old Nelly and he offers this strange woman a proposition; will she pretend to be his wife so that he can claim Nelly’s inheritance? After all, she was a rich woman long ago and he would share some of it with this faux Nelly.
So where does this all go? Well, that’s for you to see in this thought-provoking film. I won’t spoil it for you but I will tell you that the ending is ambiguous leaving room for interpretation. I thought this was actually the best part of the film. Of the course, the very fine acting, great story and excellent direction also make it a film to see.