Moody Thriller 'Phoenix' Is One Of The Year's Best Films


Although spectacle and superheroes are usually what it takes to craft the summer's biggest movies, sometimes all it takes it some tightly-constructed human drama and an outstanding performance to throw the biggest punch. Phoenix, the latest from German director Christian Petzold and his sixth film with lead actress Nina Hoss, is an example of such filmmaking.

It's Germany after the end of the Second World War, and concentration camp survivor Nelly (Hoss) undergoes facial reconstruction surgery after a gunshot wound leaves her disfigured. Despite her hopes to have her face restored to what it exactly looked like before, the doctor is unable to grant her wish, encouraging her to think of it not as a reconstruction, but a "re-creation." "I no longer exist," sighs Nelly, as she glances at old photos of herself and the life before the war, when she was a jazz singer accompanied by her pianist (and gentile) husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld).

Against the suggestion of her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), who has a plan for the both of them to move to Israel, Nelly searches for her husband at night in the bombed-out streets of Berlin. Phoenix's moody shadows and the skeletal remains of the once-great city recall the classic noir The Third Man, whose twists and deceits were right at home in postwar Vienna.

When Nelly is soon reunited with Johnny, the film becomes a taut psychodrama anchored by Hoss' strong performance. Because Johnny—who may or may not have turned his wife in to the Nazis—doesn't recognize Nelly, but sees a striking resemblance, he concocts a scheme for him and the supposed stranger to claim his wife's inheritance. He subjects Nelly to a series of "lessons" a la Hitchcock's Vertigo to craft her into the wife he thought he lost. Although it's Johnny's scheme, Nelly covertly turns his plan against him, playing along to figure out whether her husband actually did betray her or even loved her in the first place, and also trying to win him back.

In bearing the burden of being a woman who must reconstruct her identity and past, Hoss shoulders not just the role of a ghost, but also a symbol for a nation wrecked by trauma. Largely unknown to American audiences (except maybe in last year's A Most Wanted Man, in which she barely had a role), Hoss' amazing performance is one of incredible nuance, where the Nelly's slightest gestures are her only hopes to recovering a lost past.

Phoenix opens today in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal, and is now playing in New York.