Phoenix (2014) Film Review from the 58th Annual BFI London Film Festival, a movie written and directed by Christian Petzold, starring Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Uwe Preuss, Michael Maertens, Valerie Koch, Eva Bay, Imogen Kogge, Nikola Kastner, Daniela Holtz, and Sofia Exss.
Phoenix is the incredible story of a concentration camp survivor who is left disfigured and unrecognizable, as she searches post war Germany for the husband who may have served her up to the Nazis.
The film begins with a car being stopped by US forces at a checkpoint. The gritty background gives us an indication of what to expect for the remainder of the film. Our lead Nelly, played by Nina Hoss, sits in the back of the car with a bandaged face, whimpering at the sight of the officials. The opening moments only highlight the fragile state of mind she’s in.
The film then shifts to Berlin. Where in the protective care of her friend Lene, played by Nina Kunzendorf, we learn Nelly was a concentration camp survivor and is wealthy enough to pay for a costly reconstructive surgery.
However, doctors in Berlin quickly inform her that reconstructing her original face would be impossible and she would most likely have to live with a new face, though similar to the one she previously adorned.
For a large part of the film Petzold urges us to care for a bandaged and scarred woman, so when Nelly rises up with a new face, the audience hardly knows what to do. Her new face, full of possibilities is still weighed down by the emotional baggage she carries. Her eyes remain fixated, almost like she has unfinished business.
Soon after, Nelly wanders across Berlin’s bombed out streets in a ghost-like manner searching for her husband Johnny, played by Ronald Zehrfeld. She finds him easily enough, he, however, doesn’t recognize her. Nelly decides to hide the truth from him and use their time together to answer a few niggling questions she has in the back of her mind.
Their scenes together capture a host of emotions and contain within them a sort of monstrous beauty. Nelly’s wide-eyed naivety is put to the test against Johnny and his more aggressive and frustrated approach. It says a lot about a man when his initial response to seeing a woman who resembles his wife is to defraud his wife’s family estate. Johnny is played as a perpetual opportunist. There are indications throughout the film that he feels Nelly is his wife, new face or not, though, he prefers to believe she is a stranger. This further highlights the belief that he handed her over to the Nazis.
Nelly, despite all she’s seen and been through, seems to believe that Johnny is her saving grace, some kind of mythical hero. She sees him in a different light than his true self. I’m not sure whether it’s love or Stockholm syndrome, though, I suppose many relationships feel like that. Her ability to constantly defend him is not at all endearing, though very real.
The film acts as the perfect metaphor for a war ravaged Germany, who for two decades had been left victim to the Nazi regime and were now in the process of re-inventing themselves and trying to move on.
Hoss plays her part beautifully. For the first third of the film her eyes, hiding behind a bandaged face, are able to evoke such a strong range of emotions. Her tone and her gestures help make up for what is left hidden away.
The film toys with our emotions from the very beginning and continues to do so till the very end. The story was interesting to say the least, and it was complimented well by the cast. The film was a surprise in many ways, the biggest of which was the authenticity of its characters.
This is a film that will appeal to those who favour intrigue over all else. Fans of Hitchcock will appreciate the effort that has put in to make this film what it is, something different.