By Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster
Set in post-WWII Berlin, Phoenix is a compelling film from the acclaimed German director, Christian Petzold. Starring Nina Hoss, who plays Nelly, an Auschwitz survivor. Hoss expertly brings the aftermath of Nelly’s personal horror to the screen in this psychological thriller.
The dialogue in the film alternates between German and English and becomes seamless as the movie progresses. The story is based on the novel, Le Retour des cendres by Hubert Monteilhet. Google translator tells us the title means “the return of the ashes”.
As a result of a gunshot, Nelly, once a prominent singer and German Jew, first appears in the film with her face completely bandaged. Accompanied by her friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), Nelly undergoes reconstructive surgery. As much as possible, Nelly wants to look like she looked before she was shot. When the bandages come off she slightly resembles her old self.
Nelly believes that if she is able to find her gentile husband he will somehow assist her in reclaiming herself. She searches among the rubble in worn-torn Berlin, finally locating him in a night club named “Phoenix”. She is unrecognizable to him. The film progresses from there in a captivating and unusual sequence of events that can keep the most dedicated movie-goer mesmerized. Reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Vertigo Nelly’s husband, Johnny, (Ronald Zehrfeld) attempts to make Nelly, calling herself Esther, into the wife he believes is dead in order to cash in on the funds in her estate.
The intrigue, suspicion, mistrust, despair are all quite masterfully portrayed on the screen. Haunted by her experiences, her loss, and driven to find her husband and herself, the film is a somewhat disturbing, yet fascinating journey into the complexities of forgiveness, betrayal, love, hope and greed, all played out in a setting of post-war politics and collective trauma.
Ultimately in a strange form of survival and resurrection and, like the fabled bird the Phoenix, Nelly rises from the “ashes” of Auschwitz, to a hard-earned place of rebirth. With all that said, we think the film is an uncanny testimony to the human spirit. We suggest you see it and decide for yourself. Not your “run-of-the mill- film, it’s definitely worth seeing.
Bonnie Anderson is a very active lay leader in her parish, diocese and in the wider Episcopal Church. She is an experienced community organizer and lives in suburban Detroit. Dan Webster is an Episcopal priest in Baltimore, Maryland and a former broadcast news executive. But don’t expect only east coast urban perspectives here. As it turns out, they both grew up in Southern California. They blog about films and faith at Faith Reels.