In the German psychological drama Phoenix, Nina Hoss plays Nelly, an Auschwitz survivor whose face has been destroyed by a Nazi gunshot; her sister has arranged for plastic surgery to reconstruct her face. When Nelly gets her new face, we accompany her on an intense quest.
Writer-director Christian Petzhold is an economical story-teller, respectful of the audience’s intelligence. Watching a border guard’s reaction to her disfigurement and hearing snippets from the sister and the plastic surgeon, we gradually piece together her back story. The doctor asks what seems like a very good question – Why would a Jewish woman successfully rooted in London return to Germany in 1938? The answer to that question involves a Woman Loving Too Much.
The sister plans to re-settle both of them in Israel, but Nelly is obsessed with finding her husband. She does find her husband, who firmly believes that Nelly is dead. But he notes that the post-surgery Nelly resembles his pre-war wife, and he has a reason to have her impersonate the real Nelly. So he has the real Nelly (who he doesn’t think IS the real Nelly) pretending to be herself. It’s kind of a reverse version of The Return of Martin Guerre.
It’s the ultimate masquerade. How would you feel while listening to your spouse describe you in detail to a stranger?
Nina Hoss is an uncommonly gifted actress. Here she acts with her face fully bandaged for the first third of the film. We ache for her Nelly’s obsessive need for her husband – and when she finally finds him, she still doesn’t really have him.
As the husband, Ronald Zehfeld shows us the magnetism that attracts Nina, along with the brusque purposefulness that he thinks he needs to survive and flourish in the post-war Germany.
Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss collaborated on the recent film Barbara (he won the Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear for his work). About Barbara, I wrote
“Given that’s it difficult to imagine how anyone else could have improved Barbara, I’ll be looking for Petzold’s next movie.”
Well, here it is, and it’s gripping.
The ending of the film is both surprising and satisfying. Several people in my audience let out an audible “Wow!” at the same time.
Phoenix was one of my Best Movies of 2015. It is available to stream from Netflix Instant, Amazon Video, YouTube and Google Play.