From the director of Jerichow (2008) and Barbara (2012), Christian Petzold’s PHOENIX is a hauntingly exquisite film that sees a former prisoner of Auschwitz concentration camp revived from the dead. With a penchant for psychodramas, Petzold’s Phoenix deals with his favourite concoction of politics, thriller, and identity crisis. Starring Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld, this nail-biting film will whisk you away on a romantic yet emotionally disturbing journey.
Following the aftermath of World War II, Phoenix tells the story of a former cabaret singer, Nelly (Nina Hoss), who tries to move onto the next chapter of her life after surviving concentration camp. Suffering facial disfigurement due to a bullet wound, Nelly’s friend, Lene, takes Nelly to a reconstructive plastic surgeon so she could regain her former face.
Unfortunately, the surgeon was unable to fully recreate her old face, and Nelly soon becomes distraught with how her life has become. Despite the failed surgery, she decides to go back to her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) who unfortunately does not recognise her. Nelly is soon given an ultimatum: she must either choose between her husband or a new life in Palestine with Lene. Choosing Johnny, she decides to befriend him at the local Phoenix bar, and Johnny becomes alarmed by her somewhat resemblance to his dead wife. Convincing Nelly to impersonate his dead wife, they put on a lovers’ act in order for Johnny to collect Nelly’s inheritance.
In this post-modern city doused in American and French culture, citizens can be seen enjoying the nightlife with booze and cabaret performers. Yet, in the midst of this dangerously glamorous era, love can somehow blossom — even if it is in the most unconventional way. For Nelly and Johnny, Phoenix offer these estranged lovers the chance to rekindle a romance that was pulled apart by the politics of war. Phoenix might be overshadowed by its dark themes but its guise as a romance will surprisingly blindside the audience throughout the film.
A romance complete with carefreeness, happiness, and intimacy — Phoenix is an example of a post-war/romance film that many viewers would take interest in. However, there is more to this story than what meets the eye. What are Johnny’s intentions? Will he recognise his dead wife? Does Johnny actually love his wife? Can Nelly overcome the odd situation of being his dead wife? With the film’s daring tenacity for suspense and thrills, will it end well for Johnny and Nelly?
Marking the sixth collaboration between director Petzold and actress Hoss, it has been a long road since their inaugural collaboration ‘Something to Remind Me’ in 2002. There is no doubt in Hoss’s art, and this is immediately confirmed from the moment Hoss graced the screen. This was Hoss’s stage, and it was hers to dominate it. To portray a character who has gone from nothing to taking control of her life, fans will find themselves transfixed by Hoss’s mesmerising performance.
No cinematography shot is wasted — director Petzold captures Nelly’s fragility and admirable strength through a variation of close-ups on Hoss’s facial expressions and movements. As we tag along Nelly’s journey into becoming ‘Esther’, the woman we originally saw at the beginning is nowhere to be found towards the end of the film.
A woman of old-school beauty and sophistication dressed in French clothes, the costume department has done an incredible job in illustrating Nelly’s metamorphosis. Like a Phoenix born from the ashes, nothing was more enthralling than witnessing Nelly’s ultimate form. Putting on her greatest performance in front of Johnny and his family, this act of relinquishment from her former self is a thrilling show-stopper that will leave the audience speechless.
Overall: A story about identity, betrayal, and the ability to move on from the past, PHOENIX is a well-crafted psychodrama. Noted for its bewitching narrative and Hoss’s exceptional performance, this captivating post-war film will cast a hypnotising spell on viewers from start to finish.