director: Christian Petzold
In Phoenix, Nelly (Nina Hoss), a Jewish jazz singer, manages to escape Auschwitz with a horrible gunshot wound to her face. A plastic surgeon is enlisted, and soon Nelly is recovering with a face that is almost, but not quite, her own. After her terrible experiences in the concentration camp, she is desperate to find her loved ones, but most were killed by the Nazis. However, she is certain that her piano-playing husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfield) is still alive, and she is determined to find him.
Nelly's friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), who works at the department of Jewish records, holds secret knowledge about Nelly's husband Johnny. Lene has taken up the role of Nelly's rescuer and is making plans for the two of them to go to Palestine, which will soon be made into a Jewish homeland, a place Lene imagines will be free from anti-Jewish sentiment, free of Nazis, and far enough away fro the Germany of World War II that they will one day be able to bear listening to German songs again. Lene quivers with pride, passion, and barely sublimated desire when speaking to Nelly about the life they will live together there, free from the chaos and hatred of the war. The character is onscreen for a relatively short period of time, yet Kunzendorf manages to convey Lene's inner turmoil beautifully.
However, Nelly still longs to find Johnny, whom she loves and misses dearly; her desperate quest to find him takes her along the dangerous streets in night-time Berlin that are populated with American GIs, street corner musicians, and violent criminals. As Lene watches in helpless anguish, Nelly tracks Johnny down to a nightclub named "Phoenix."
As the nightclub's name implies, Phoenix is both a literal and metaphorical story of transformation. (The metaphorical flavour of the movie helps make Nelly's surprisingly normal post-operative appearance easier to accept.) Post-WWII Germany is portrayed as a society in transition--it is a country still uncertain of how to make reparations for the unrepairable. Can anything ever make up for Nazi crimes against humanity? What do we do about the everyday people who sold out their friends and loved ones to save their own skins? What should Holocaust survivors be given? And importantly, what is it that they need?
Hoss is entirely believable as a woman slowly re-emerging from suspended animation. While she was in the concentration camp, she did not know what was happening to Berlin. Her reactions to the rubble and ruin in the city are poignant. Just as she is rediscovering herself with her own new face, she is also rediscovering her old city with its new face.
Zehrfield has, in some ways, a more challenging role. In some ways he is an enigma; we don't really know what drives him, though we can speculate. We as the audience see him simultaneously through two lenses: we are privy to Lene's knowledge, so we know the truth about him, but because we also see him as Nelly sees him--her true love--his character lends itself to a slightly more complex reading.
The movie's pacing is perfect. It never moves too slowly or too quickly; it maintains tension and keeps the viewer wanting to find out what happens next. But at the same time, it never seems rushed. As events unfold, the movie marches calmly forward to its inevitable climax. We do not quite know exactly how things will be resolved, but we know that no matter what happens, it will not be the ending any of the characters wished for. An audience, however, one could not wish for a more perfect cinematic resolution.