There aren't a lot of stories in any medium about Germany just after the Holocaust, and even fewer focusing on those who survived the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. It's not hard to imagine why these topics might be difficult to address in a narrative film — especially for a filmmaker from Germany, where recent social history is always up for analysis and debate.
Award-winning writer/director Christian Petzold hails from Hilden, Germany and makes films that explore issues of mortality in the context of German society and culture. With Phoenix, Petzold treads where few of his countrymen are willing to go. The film tells the small-scale story of a Jewish woman from Berlin who barely survives Auschwitz and attempts to return to normal life. Remarkably, it evolves into a low-key psychological thriller inspired by Alfred Hitchcock and American film noir but never loses its focus on the crushing effects of dehumanization perpetrated in the camps.
When we meet Nelly (Nina Hoss), the war has just ended but her face is covered in bandages from a gunshot wound requiring reconstructive surgery. "A new face is an advantage" given circumstances, says Nelly's plastic surgeon. But Nelly only wants to be herself inside and out, though neither seems possible. Her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) wants Nelly to emigrate to Palestine, but Nelly longs for reconciliation with her long-lost husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) and searches for him — though she knows he may have betrayed her to the authorities.
What follows is an unlikely yet plausible chain of events that draws directly from Hitchcock's classic Vertigo and offers some twists of its own. It runs on duplicity, shifting identities and escalating tension, even if most of the action occurs inside the minds of the film's two central characters. (Don't watch the trailer unless you want to learn things best revealed slowly by the film.) The pace is deliberate and builds to the most satisfying final film scene in ages.
Hoss is a talented actress who has become Petzold's on-screen muse, appearing in six of his films over the last 13 years. Just about every scene in Phoenix hinges on Nelly's ever-shifting emotional state, easily discerned on her reconstructed face even when she scarcely utters a word. It's a searing performance, and one that matches the stark feel and unsentimental mood of Petzold's ultimately devastating film.
The director's use of light and shadow and the moral ambiguity of his characters recall film noir of the 1940s, updated with muted color (as opposed to black and white) and CinemaScope — though widescreen images mostly are used to show the great distances between people living in a shattered world.
The film's kinship with film noir resonates on an additional level, as that genre was largely developed in Hollywood by German filmmakers who fled their homeland when Hitler rose to power. With Phoenix, Petzold neatly closes the circle, effectively bringing German influences home to shed light on the country's painful and still-contentious past.