Phoenix is German actress Nina Hoss’ sixth film with director Christian Perzold. The two had previously worked on the brilliant Barbara (2012) – a Cold War thriller brimming with tension. In marginally similar fashion, Phoenix is set in Berlin in the aftermath of the second World War.
The film centres around Hoss’ Nelly; a woman horribly disfigured after brutal treatment in a concentration camp. She is aided by her childhood best friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) who helps arrange facial reconstruction with a top doctor. She suspects her German husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) gave her up. But without any evidence she is desperate to find him and unearth the truth.
Nelly’s new face is the key to Phoenix. As the film develops, the issue of loyalty crops up over and over. The face one presents to us on a daily basis versus what lies beneath; the concealed, the betrayer, the liar. As Nina is singularly dedicated to finding Johnny and oblivious to all other matters, Lene’s character dwells on the sad truths of the war which form the backbone here – now that war has ended how do a once downcast people fit back into German society, do we forgive…and forget? Is that even possible? All around Nelly, others struggle with rebuilding their lives from scratch. Her vision is channelled at one matter only and she loses herself in this search, not so much as for answers, but more a rekindling of love, forcing herself to believe that she can create her old self somehow, life, marriage, everything. It’s heartbreaking watching her stumble through rubble wide-eyed and lost.
Without spoiling anything, she does find Johnny and what comes next is intriguing if a little silly and unrealistic. It’s almost plausible in fact, due to the dreamy quality of the film, watching Nelly float around, dazed and confused. Does she get any of this? Does she actually understand what it is she’s doing?
Overall, it’s a well polished, immaculately looking film. Hoss is superb as the muted Nelly, a character equal parts frustrating and wonderful. The ending’s twist, some have loved. This critic wasn’t surprised at all, but it suits the flow of the film.