“Phoenix” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. PG-13, 1:38, three and a half stars out of four. I’ll be doing a post-shot chat after the Tuesday 7 p.m. show at Sundance Cinemas.
The title “Phoenix” may evoke images of the mythical bird rising from the ashes, but the Berlin depicted in Christian Petzold’s film is not so much rising as crawling out of the ruins, dazed and guilty. The haunting thriller looks as much at the intimate interior damage wrought upon by World War II as the physical damage.
Jewish singer Nelly (Nina Hoss) has endured plenty of both. Taken to the concentration camps in 1944, Nelly somehow managed to survive, although a bullet to the face disfigured her. As the film opens, she is being taken back home to Berlin by her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), who wants Jews to leave the Germany who betrayed them and start over in Palestine.
But Nelly wants to resume her old life — it’s telling that the surgeon who reconstructs her face calls the process “re-creation.” But, just like the new face Nelly wears that makes her unrecognizable, everything in Berlin has changed. Her old home is now rubble. Many of those she knew have died, and those that survived have to answer for why. Nelly carries a photo with her of old friends; the dead have circles drawn on their faces, the Nazi collaborators have crosses. No one’s face is unmarked.
Nelly finds her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) busing tables in the tawdry nightclub that gives the movie its title. We learn that Johnny was arrested by the Nazis two days before Nelly, yet he was released. Why? It’s a question the shattered Nelly prefers not to face.
Johnny thinks Nelly died in the camps, and doesn’t recognize the “re-created” Nelly. But in a clever twist of the knife in Petzold’s screenplay, he thinks she looks enough like her late wife to concoct a scheme. She will “impersonate” Nelly so that he can get access to her inheritance. So, in a basement apartment, Johnny teaches Nelly how to look and behave like Nelly. Nelly complies, keeping her true identity a secret so that she can be close to Johnny. But it soon becomes clear to her; she isn’t that old Nelly anymore.
This is Petzold’s third film with Hoss, and she has become the perfect collaborator for his low-key tales of women under pressure. We never see Nelly’s time in the camps and barely hear about them, but we can feel her lingering horror in every step Hoss takes, every naked gaze she takes back at her old life. On paper, I think I’d question whether Nelly really would go along with Johnny’s deception, but Hoss’ unguarded, emotionally hungry performance sold me on it.
The Hitchcockian homages are clear in “Phoenix,” especially to “Vertigo,” in which an obsessed James Stewart remade a woman into the image of a lost love. But “Phoenix” is more mournful in tone, turning its noir tropes into a meditation on grief and memory. Music is a major facet of this film, with its considerable power to unlock old memories both comforting and disturbing. In the Phoenix nightclub, the German girls sing American songs for the homesick U.S. troops, while Lene confesses she can’t enjoy her favorite German songs anymore.
Finally, “Phoenix” delivers an absolutely devastating ending in the form of a song, one that cuts through the subterfuge and denial of its characters and reveals their true natures at last. “Phoenix” is a film that starts slow, gathers momentum and hits you with the force of an express train at the end.