Phoenix (2015)

Posted by Joel Copling on August 22, 2015

We must suspend a certain amount of disbelief to buy the central conceit of "Phoenix," a film so named for a club featured prominently in the first half-hour and for the metaphor that lies in the rebirth of the titular, winged aves from their own ashes. This is a motion picture that touches on many important topics, chief among them being the eradication of German Jews by the Nazis and the psychological torment of the concentration camps in which they were held and tortured. Unfortunately, the way the screenplay by Harun Farocki and director Christian Petzold (based on a novel by Hubert Monteilhet) handles its more specific narrative falls short.

Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) is the sole survivor among her whole family of a series of bombings that desolated her hometown but only because she was in one of those concentration camps at the time. She was shot in the face by one of the guards and must undergo facial-reconstruction surgery to repair the damage. The problem is that she was left for dead after the injury, and as the doctor points out, making her look like her former self would be unwise. Her new face makes her apparently unrecognizable (That we never actually see what her face looked like before the shooting is its own kind of problem, though), and that includes toward her ex-husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), whom Nelly seeks out at the club that shares the film's title.

The film then becomes an extended examination of irony. Because of the circumstances surrounding their arrests and imprisonment in the death camps, Nelly's fear of how Johnny will react to his thought-dead ex-wife's reappearance in his life forces her to pose as a woman named Esther, but Johnny sees a vague resemblance to whom he remembers as Nelly. And yes, that does indeed mean that Nelly must impersonate herself, leading to the amusing realization on everyone's (Nelly's and the audience's) part that Nelly is such a bad actress that she can't even pose as herself. Hoss's performance is effective enough, though curious in the way the actress plays everything so close to the chest that her face could be carved from stone in any given scene (except for the last, curt one, a literal performance in which the inevitable reveal and fulfillment of the film's intended tension come full circle).

The fact of the matter is that it's more than a bit difficult to accept this without some inner struggle with how Petzold and Farocki handle it so gently. Some things are simply made better with a heavier hand; this one simply arrives at a conclusion after some acute tension regarding whether Johnny will recognize Nelly and an attempt to thwart suspicion by having a Holocaust survivor pose as a Holocaust survivor. The final scene, indeed, is the most affecting "Phoenix" ever is in its 98 minutes, as one person is allowed to communicate to another the truth without giving away the game to anyone else, but this effort is simply too little, too late, in a drama too thin to elicit the effect for which it is aiming.

Film Information

Nina Hoss (Nelly Lenz), Ronald Zehrfeld (Johnny Lenz), Nina Kunzendorf (Lene Winter).

Directed by Christian Petzold and written by Petzold and Harun Farocki, based on the novel "Le Retour des cendres" by Hubert Monteilhet.

Rated PG-13 (thematic elements, brief suggestive material).

98 minutes.

Released in select cities on July 24, 2015.