by Charles Nash

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday July 24, 2015

Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Hoss star in 'Phoenix'
Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Hoss star in 'Phoenix'  

A haunting meditation on the notion of identity in post-WWII Germany, Christian Petzold's Phoenix is a masterful melodrama that pays loving homage to cinema's past.

With its smoky atmosphere, moody visual palette and Hitchcockian undertones, the picture grandly incorporates the technical qualities of a classic film noir into the tale of one woman's survival of the Holocaust. In addition to its gorgeous production values, what's so astonishing about the picture is the nuanced way it manages to transcend exploitative genre tropes while still painting a devastating portrait of loss following one of the most horrific atrocities in human history.

The film opens in the mid-1940s, with two women arriving at an American checkpoint upon their arrival into Berlin. The driver, Lena (Nina Kunzendorf), looks luminous, while her companion, Nelly (Nina Hoss), has her face completely wrapped up in bloody bandages -- an image that recalls Edith Scob's iconic turn in Georges Franju's tour de force, "Eyes Without a Face." After the soldiers force Nelly to reveal her face to them, Lena explains to them that her passenger is a concentration camp survivor that's been brutally disfigured by a gunshot wound.

Once they are both allowed safe passage, Lena brings Nelly to a surgeon, who provides her with reconstructive facial surgery. Unfortunately, while the procedure is for the most part successful, Nelly's physical appearance is significantly altered, resulting in the slightest resemblance of her former self. She eventually tracks down her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who is now working as a busboy at a nightclub named Phoenix (hence the title), but he doesn't recognize her. Still, Johnny notices her semblance to his wife, and, believing her to be dead, requests that she 'pretend' to be Nelly as a way of gaining her inheritance.

With its smoky atmosphere, moody visual palette and Hitchcockian undertones, the picture grandly incorporates the technical qualities of a classic film noir into the tale of one woman's survival from the Holocaust.

You may be thinking, "Why on Earth would Nelly pretend to go along with this plan? Why not reveal that she is his wife?" The defining reason: Nelly believes that Johnny may be the one who betrayed her to the Nazis in the first place, and is desperate to play along in this charade as a means of discovering the truth. Not to mention, despite all of his greed and possible treachery, it's abundantly clear that she's still very much in love with him.

On paper, this plot may seem utterly implausible, but Petzold is such an assured filmmaker, and the performances are so strong, that I was mesmerized from the first frame to the last. In fact, "Phoenix" is crafted with such precision and that I couldn't help but reflect upon how most Holocaust-themed films these days that claim to be "based on a true story," such as the goopy piece of Oscar-bait, "Woman in Gold," from earlier this year, feel so much more artificial by comparison. This may not be based on the account of an actual survivor, but the pathos of Nelly's story is more achingly authentic than most recent cinematic depictions of this historical tragedy.

That's mainly due to Hoss, whose turn here as Nelly can break your heart simply through a look in her eyes. She gives an astonishingly subtle performance that speaks volumes, poignantly exuding all of the repressed anguish and longing for her past life through her performance of a performance. Zehrfeld is equally good as her former lover, who may or may not be in denial of Nelly's true identity, and Kunzendorf fleshes out what could have been an expository character, making her into a complex individual who has just as many inner demons as our existentially conflicted protagonist.

Petzold appropriately structures the film as a slow burn, quietly building up to a finale that's one of the most powerful endings of any film so far this year. It's wrenching, exquisitely executed, and, surprisingly, even hopeful, resulting in a layered emotional wallop guaranteed to linger with you long after you exit the theatre. "Phoenix" may seem like a tough sell for some viewers, whether the reasoning revolves around the painful subject matter or the seemingly farfetched premise, but the film itself is a rich, rewarding and revelatory historical drama that deserves to be seen.

You'll never listen to "Speak Low" by Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash the same way again.