By Skip Sheffield
What an eerie, haunting and powerful little film is “Phoenix,” now playing at Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton. A “film noir” in color, “Phoenix” is set in a ruined Berlin, Germany immediately after World War II. Adapted from Hubert Montelheit’s 1961 novel “Return From the Ashes,” “Phoenix” is a story of love, betrayal, loss and survival by director Christian Petzold. Yes, this is another Holocaust film, but it is much more than that.
Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) is an Auschwitz survivor and only member of her family left alive. Lena has been terribly disfigured in the war. When we meet her in Switzerland she is completely bandaged and attended to by her best friend and fellow Holocaust survivor Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf), who has arranged for her to have plastic surgery in Berlin to restore her face.
Lene urges Nelly to have total facial reconstruction so that she has an entirely new face. Nelly disagrees. She wants her old face back. The doctor warns her she will never look exactly as she had before her injuries. We learn soon enough why she wants to resemble her old self.
“Phoenix” is a mystery wrapped in a romance, underscored by the madness and cruelty of the Holocaust. The romance is the unrequited love the Jewish Nelly feels for her gentile husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) who was also her musical partner when he accompanied Nelly’s singing.
The name “Phoenix” is not random. Though it is the name given to the shady nightclub where Nelly, now calling herself Esther, rediscovers Johnny, now called Johannes, it also recalls the Greek myth of the Phoenix, which rises from its ashes after death. Johnny is now doing menial labor in that same nightclub. Against Lene’s strongest warnings, Nelly pursues Johnny, who may have been the rat who betrayed her to the Nazis. There are echoes of Hitchcock’s great “Vertigo,” with a mysterious heroine with two personalities. Nina Hoss is a top German actress, but little-seen in the USA. Some may remember her from “A Most Wanted Man” with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Suffice it to say she is a master actress who will grip your heart.