Blockbusters With Brigham: Phoenix (Caution It’s In German)
by Sam Brigham on Thursday, March 10th, 2016
Have you ever found yourself scrolling through movies on Netflix, unable to find any of the well-known films that you are looking for? Indeed, Netflix offers few of today’s greatest box-office hits on its streaming service. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t encounter an excellent film deep within Netflix’s webs of obscure documentaries and cheap horror flicks.
Recently, I found one of these gems in the form of Phoenix, a German drama film with English subtitles. Loosely adapted from the 1961 French novel Le Retour des Cendres (The Return from the Ashes) and directed by Christian Petzold, Phoenix follows the story of a Jewish holocaust survivor who returns to Berlin to see the husband who may have turned her over to the Nazis. However, a recent facial reconstruction surgery prevents him from recognizing her. Released in the United States on July 24, 2015 following a German release approximately ten months earlier, critics praised Phoenix, though it never found a niche in theaters, grossing only 3.7 million dollars in America. While certainly not action-packed, Phoenix is a tense, intelligent film that will leave patient viewers in awe.
At the beginning of the film, Holocaust survivor and former cabaret singer Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) returns to Berlin following facial reconstruction surgery for damage caused by a bullet wound. Her whole family has been killed by the Nazis, and she is staying with her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf). Nelly has inherited a considerable amount of money and Lene suggests that they move to Palestine, where they will surely be safe and can use their money to help form an independent Jewish state. However, Nelly first and foremost wants to find her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Ignoring Lene’s warnings that he likely was the one who turned her in, Nelly searches for Johnny and soon sees him working in a nightclub. Johnny sees Nelly as well, but believing his wife to be dead, he assumes her to be a woman who simply resembles his late spouse and recruits her to impersonate his wife to help him reclaim her fortune. But she must first learn to act the part; in essence, Johnny begins to teach Nelly to play herself, unaware that his true wife has returned to him.
Despite taking place entirely in Germany, the film has several scenes with English dialogue and even English music, perhaps to serve as a reminder of the Allies’ victory. The juxtaposition of the bright lights of the nightclub with the post-World-War II rubble of Berlin creates an interesting dynamic, as do brief scenes in the German countryside where we see minor characters who have been affected more subtly by the war. Viewers learn little about Nelly’s experience in the concentration camp, but she does describe the gas chambers with haunting precision. I found that the mysterious nature of Nelly’s past adds to the intrigue of the film, especially since she in large part remains composed despite having undergone massively traumatic experiences.
Proving that less can be more, Hoss and Zehrfeld manage to create a tense, entertaining dynamic as the two lone central characters. Hoss provides an excellent performance as a woman who remains romantically convinced of her husband’s ongoing good intentions despite continually mounting evidence to the contrary. At the same time, Zehrfeld convincingly portrays a guarded man, blissfully unaware of the fact that his wife stands right before him, but still suggestive enough to make the audience wonder if he is starting to catch on. While Zehrfeld’s character mostly avoids speaking specifically of his past wife, in brief moments he appears to reminisce about her, likely fueling his wife’s inclination to stay by his side. There’s even a beautiful scene in which the two are compelled to kiss to avoid appearing suspicious to passerby, and viewers see that the intimacy feels natural to both individuals. As Nelly learns more and more about Johnny’s actions leading up to her capture, she remains firmly by his side, not wanting to believe that he had an incentive to turn her in. Viewers never stop questioning both parties’ motives, making the prospect of Nelly revealing herself as Johnny’s real wife even more riveting.
In Phoenix, the tension between a woman pretending to be a stranger and the husband who believes her to be dead never ceases. Viewers are kept on edge without any explosions or gunfights, wanting desperately to know whether Johnny will finally realize his wife is right beside him and how he will react. Sure, the movie’s plot may not move too quickly. However, for the drama film fan who loves provocative, haunting films and wants to stay within the confines of Netflix, Phoenix is an excellent choice.
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