Wow! (Yes, back-to-back)
I waited far too long to see Phoenix. If it came to Winnipeg, I didn’t notice. In the end, I had to order the DVD from Europe to get it in time for my top-ten list (coming on the 17th), where Phoenix will certainly find a place.
Phoenix is the fourth foreign-language film dealing with some aspect of the Jewish experience in WWII that I have seen in the past four months (I’m not sure what the sudden interest in that subject signifies). For me, it is by far the best (though I still expect Son of Saul to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 2015). Phoenix is a haunting Hitchcockian classic (I use the term ‘classic’ here to denote the feel and style of the film as well as its quality).
Directed by Christian Petzold, Phoenix is set in the American sector of Berlin shortly after the war (the period detail and feel are terrific). Nina Hoss is magnificent as Nelly Lenz, a Jewish singer who survived her time at a concentration camp but requires major facial reconstruction surgery as soon as she gets back to Berlin. Nelly is supported through this time by her friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), who informs Nelly that Nelly’s husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, also excellent), betrayed her. Lene encourages Nelly to leave Germany and move with her to Palestine. But Nelly doesn’t believe Lene. As soon as she has recovered from her surgery (about which she is quite dissatisfied), she goes looking for Johnny. Johnny, who believes that Nelly is dead, doesn’t recognize her but sees enough resemblance to offer Nelly the opportunity to play the role of Johnny’s wife so that he can inherit the money from Nelly’s estate (she is the only surviving member of her family). Not sure what to think about Johnny, Nelly decides to go along with the charade. And yes, all of that is just the introduction to the heart of the film.
The plot certainly lacks credibility, but it is handled so well, with one riveting scene after another, that I can forgive this flaw (without which there would be no story to tell here). That story of Phoenix provides endless subject matter for discussion, especially about guilt and forgiveness, about surviving trauma, about identity and about the underlying horror of life in postwar Germany. Labyrinth of Lies, which I watched in October, indicated that as late as 1958, most Germans (especially the young) knew very little about the concentration camps and the Holocaust. The seeds of that ignorance/denial can be seen in Phoenix.
With great acting, a brilliant tight screenplay with layers of depth, wonderful cinematography, the right choice of music and a perfect ambiguous ending, Phoenix is the best of the three four-star films I have watched in 2016. **** for this top-three film from 2015. My mug is up.