Phoenix tells the story of Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a German Jew struggling to come to terms with the loss of her identity following extensive facial reconstructive surgery after the Holocaust. Nelly goes in search of her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), but little did she expect not to recognise the man she once loved.
Set in 1945, the film is centred around Nelly, the lone survivor of a family deported to Auschwitz, and depicts a post-war Berlin where people try to regroup after the atrocities of the war. Whilst under the watchful eye of good friend and Jewish Agency employee, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), Nelly becomes embroiled in a past romance.
It’s a film filled with mystery and intrigue, but is inevitably tinged with sadness. Not only because of the theme of the film – which marks the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust – but also as Johnny, Nelly’s husband, is only interested in getting his hands on her $20,000 inheritance. He believes Nelly to be dead and so she agrees to be her own imposter.
Nelly – “I wanted to find Johnny, day and night and when I found him and he didn’t recognise me, it was like I was dead again.”
Using Nelly, who he no longer recognises, Johnny tells her that she looks like his late wife. He then sets about training her to play herself for when she will be reunited with her distant relatives, scrutinising her every move, her clothing, her make-up, her hair, her writing, her walk and even her signature, telling her that it’s not good enough.
Nelly – “When he talks about Nelly, I get jealous of myself (!) “
The plot, based on the novel, ‘Le Retour des cendres’ by Hubert Monteilhet is not only incredibly well thought out, but was extremely well portrayed by the main three actors who have a great on-screen rapport. Hoss’ performance as Nelly culminates beautifully with her triumphant performance of the song “Speak Low” which plays a significant role in the film for several reasons. Not only is it considered a sign of rebellion as use of the English language had been repressed during the war years but it also acts as a moment of realisation for Johnny.
Phoenix is due for release on March 11 in Belgium.
Running time: 98 min.
Director: Christian Petzold