Accompanied by a bass line and piano score of single malt-smoothness, the opening scene of Phoenix lets the viewer add a framing device to the film, should they so choose. There’s no narrative trickery or chronological playfulness to the film, but from its music alone, Phoenix is inviting you to listen to a Holocaust story told as lounge room anecdote. It’s a jazzy mishmash of a tale: part jukebox noire, part psychological drama. The fusion is uneven to start, but the longer its themes commingle, the more Phoenix harmonizes into something unforgettable.
Nina Hoss stars as Nelly Lenz, an Auschwitz prisoner returning to Ally-occupied Berlin shortly after the war’s conclusion. The sole survivor of her family, Nina stands to inherit a sizeable fortune, part of which is spent reconstructing her face, which was badly disfigured during her internment. Looking not entirely like herself, Nina makes contact in Berlin with the husband who gave her up to the Nazis. In the new Nina, the traitorous Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) only sees a doppelganger that will let him cash-in on the inheritance of his presumed-dead wife.
The setup has no shortage of contrivance, and Nina’s willingness to go along with Johnny’s plan is, at first, questionable. She comes off as submissive, and less immediately engaging than her friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), who escaped the camps, but has come out of the war a more hardened soul. The blending of noir photography, musical performance, and survivor psychology leaves Phoenix feeling a little loose around the midsection, but writer-director Christian Petzold has chosen his elements deliberately.
From a pulpy premise of betrayal and mistaken faces develops a gutting examination of post-trauma identity and the weight of survivor’s guilt. Phoenix takes a while to figure out just how to gracefully balance its unique combination of ingredients, but through the second half, its emotional and thematic resonance just keeps building. By the mic drop-worthy final scene, whatever quibbles you had previously evaporate like smoke in the face of Phoenix’s breathtaking closing notes.