Phoenix, the name of a cabaret in post-war Berlin, serves additional duty as a metaphor for the protagonist’s rebirth and for the beginning of Germany’s national resurgence. Nina Hoss plays Nelly, a Jewish concentration camp survivor whose face was shot and shattered and whose post-war plastic surgery has rendered her difficult to recognize. This is a plot point that pivots the movie’s action and character revelations and unfortunately, it’s too unbelievable to sustain the set-up. Nelly reconnects with her husband who, believing her dead, doesn’t recognize her, even though her face shows all the surgical bruises and scars that suggest exactly what has happened to her. He hatches a scheme to dress and style her as if she were the “real” Nelly so that the two of them can claim the money owed her by the German government. During this crash coaching, it becomes clear that this woman has not only uncannily mastered Nelly’s handwriting but miraculously, fits into Nelly’s shoes. This last Cinderella factor is too over the top for us to continue suspending credulity in the husband’s failure to see the obvious. Imagine the prince, upon seeing Cinderella’s foot glide effortlessly into the glass slipper, simply scratching his head and saying “that’s strange.” It takes the most obvious symbol of the camps for the husband to have his “aha” moment which comes at the movie’s end.
Despite these central plot flaws, Phoenix is a searing portrait of a traumatized survivor who clings to the husband whose memory sustained her during her tortured existence in a concentration camp, becoming her only reason for retaining the will to live. Despite the revelations of his multiple betrayal of her, she is unable to come to terms with the truth. In a metaphoric way, she is also unable to accept the truth of what her homeland did to her and wants to remain in Berlin, protesting that she is hardly Jewish and refusing her friend’s insistence that they both relocate to Israel. These are the most interesting and least explored psychological aspects of her PTSD. Hoss, an actress of nuanced intensity, could have done more with the complications of this subject which have not really been tackled in other films about the holocaust. Too bad the screenplay doesn’t delve more deeply into this opportunity.
The other questionable plot device turns on the wealthy Jewish friend’s retention of her stately old apartment along with the faithful German housekeeper whom she had employed before the war. We never learn how Lene remained alive during the roundup of the Jews or how she kept or retrieved the apartment. Though this may sound trivial, it would factor into our understanding of subsequent events involving Lene which I won’t reveal. Throughout the film, we hear the music and then the full song of Kurt Weill’s Speak Low, a hauntingly beautiful tune composed by the Jewish Weill in the safety of America yet somehow seems rooted in the mournful old world. Phoenix is a film that will disturb you, perplex you and ultimately move you deeply. See it.
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