Sunday, July 26, 2015

Review: Phoenix

Image courtesy of Sundance Selects.
Christian Petzold's "Phoenix" is an engrossing post-World War II drama with a noirish story and an ending that feels like a gut punch. The picture is a revenge thriller, of sorts, and Nina Hoss is the femme fatale, but the plan she enacts to get back at the person who betrayed her is the stuff of subtle drama, rather than the plot to drive an exploitation movie.

Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, a Jewish woman who has managed to survive the concentration camps, despite the rest of her family having been killed by the Nazis. Her appearance has been badly damaged and a friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), has helped Nelly to secure an operation that will restructure her face. One of my few quibbles with the picture is Lene's mysterious presence. We're never quite sure what role she plays in the story and, much later, she takes a drastic action that only makes her character more opaque.

Nelly hears from Lene that her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), has survived and is working at a local bar. In their previous lives, both Nelly and her husband had been musicians. But Lene warns her friend that Johnny sold her out to the Nazis in order to survive and is now attempting to get ahold of the money left to her by her deceased family.

At first, Nelly appears skeptical that her husband would have done such a horrific deed against her and, due to her changed appearance, when she finally meets him he doesn't recognize her. However, he believes that she could pass as his wife and attempts to convince her to get involved in a plot to get his "deceased" wife's inheritance by passing Nelly (who is now living with a new identity) off as, well, Nelly.

Still convinced that her husband would not have sold her out, Nelly goes along with the ploy because it gives her an opportunity to be close to her husband, despite his not recognizing her, and due to the fact that he is the only person left alive that she loves. She holds out hope that he might still love her - even though he does not know who she actually is.

"Phoenix" has a plot that borders on noir melodrama, but what makes it work so well is the rich atmosphere that Petzold, whose previous film was the powerful "Barbara," creates, especially during the sequences in which Nelly haunts the bar - which is bathed in a red glow - where Johnny works. It also helps that the cast is terrific, Hoss especially. It's a tricky role - playing a woman who is pretending to be another, but all the while wishing to actually be the person she once was - and Hoss nails all the various beats of the role.

The picture leads up to a powerful climax that some reviewers have mislabeled as a "twist." It's not so much that as it is a stunning reveal - in other words, a twist for one of the characters, rather than the audience. "Phoenix" is a good movie with a great ending and another solid collaboration between its star (who played the lead in "Barbara") and director. And it's the type of thriller that makes an impact not due to the mechanics of plot, but through the characters and the excellent actors who inhabit them.

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