Phoenix, released in 2014, is a deep character study, aided by terrific acting and technically brilliant filmmaking.
A German film, set primarily in Berlin immediately following the conclusion of World War II, its main character is a woman named Nelly (Nina Hoss), a Holocaust survivor. During her time in the camps, her face was disfigured by a bullet wound. In the hospital after the war, she is told by her doctor that he can reconstruct her face to look like anyone she wants. She replies that she wants to look exactly how she did before. The doctor restores her facial features nearly completely, but Nelly is nevertheless disappointed by the slight changes in her appearance.
Nelly returns home to find the city, and all remnants of her former life, in ruin. She learns that she has inherited a large sum of money from her relatives who died in the Holocaust, but is more concerned with finding her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Nelly’s closest friend insists to her that Johnny was the one who betrayed her to authorities at the start of the war, but Nelly refuses to believe this and decides to find out for herself. Nelly returns to the cabaret where she used to sing, but Johnny, assuming his wife to be dead, does not recognize her. He does, however, think that she looks enough like Nelly that he may be able to use her to collect Nelly’s inheritance money. Nelly goes along with the plan, not revealing her true identity, as Johnny spends his free time teaching her, who is pretending to be someone else, how to pretend to be Nelly.
The result of this premise, set up over the film’s first act, is a captivating and complex character drama. There is a tension in each and every scene with Nelly and Johnny. Though the plot may not be the most realistic, the script is so well written that there are no holes within the story, and it completely works within the universe of the movie. Though one of Phoenix’s greatest qualities is the tension created by the plot, the movie examines the two main characters so deeply and intensely that the viewer feels the reach and message of the movie goes far further than just the events transpiring on screen.
Phoenix is not a confusing or difficult movie to watch, but it is one that will leave you discussing its meaning long after it is over. Nelly living a double identity makes for a fascinating character, and one filled with meaning. Phoenix is about change, and our desire to recapture pieces of ourselves that have been lost.
Nelly wants her old face back, her old life, her old identity. She wants the life she had before it was broken and truths she has lost. We, the audience, watch her let go of her current identity by pretending to be someone else in order to regain her old one. Nelly’s character can represent many situations too, such as the state of Germany after the war.
Phoenix goes so deep into its characters and is so charged with real feelings that, like life itself, it does not demand the viewer interpret it as having just one singular meaning.
This is all enhanced by the technical mastery of the film. Director Christian Petzold fills each shot with meaning. Everything from the lighting to the camera angles to the backgrounds of each scene are meaningful yet subtle. Phoenix is never too heavy-handed in its symbolism, but is nevertheless full of it. The way the scenes are lit or the characters are positioned on screen give the film an energy that makes its narrative even more powerful.
The acting, particularly that of Hoss in the lead, is outstanding. Some of the most powerful moments in the film are conveyed just through facial expression.
And then there is the ending. The conclusion of Phoenix hits hard and leaves you in stuck in your seat as the credits roll. It is one of, if not the greatest, final scenes I have ever seen. Like everything else in the film, it is subtle yet powerful.