Phoenix takes place in Germany shortly after the end of World War II. The city of Berlin is reeling, much of it still in ruins, and the portion of its Jewish population that somehow survived the concentration camps is returning, warily ready to restart their lives but still understandably burdened by spiritual wounds that will likely never heal. One of those returning is Nelly (Nina Hoss), whose face was badly damaged by a bullet wound. The doctor charged with reconstructive surgery asks her about the appearance she’d like him to provide. Nelly insists she wants to look like herself, a choice the doctor cautions against. The surgery simply can’t get close enough, he warns, and there’s always a certain amount of disappointment that complicates the emotional healing process. Still, he acquiesces, and Nelly cautiously ventures out with an appearance that is evidently similar but not quite a mirror of before.
Based loosely on a French mystery novel from the early nineteen-sixties, Phoenix begins as a rumination on identity, that most modern of topics. In the aftermath of war, there are any number of people who are trying to reestablish their place, or maybe come to terms with how unfit their previous place has become. That notion runs through Phoenix, like a wispy tendril of smoke trailing a candle wearily transported through darkened corridors. Eventually, though, it turns into something far more twisty, as Nelly comes into contact with a key figure from her former life who doesn’t recognize her but sees an opportunity for her to be a sort of impostor in a scam. With some harsh echoes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, takes the consideration of the pliability of identity one step further, showing precisely how that identity is shaped by others who paradoxically hold intimate knowledge of the person and no proper conception as to who they really are.
Director Christian Petzold presents the material with aching care. If anything, the film can sometimes move a little too slowly in its build-up to devastating turns. Once the crux of the plot arrives, though, that meticulous approach yields a greater depth of feeling. The turns of tender dismay feel properly earned. Because of this, the film never feels manipulative or cruel, even at its most harsh. The characters haven’t been propped up only to be knocked asunder. They’ve been allowed to live their contradictions before that inner tumult is spun into drama. Part of Petzold’s confidence in this approach likely comes from working with a familiar team. Co-writer Harun Farocki and stars Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld were all central partners in Petzold’s previous feature, the very fine Barbara (Hoss has played a lead role in most of Petzold’s films). In particular, Petzold has practically formed the film to play to his performers’ considerable strengths, with the story affording Hoss a heart-rending, thrillingly erratic journey and Zehrfeld nothing less than the film’s most powerful moment, sold almost entirely through his wordless reaction. Petzold argues in Phoenix that it’s not just buildings that war reduces to rubble, in large part thanks to actors who are prepared to show what it looks like when the same level of damage is inflicted on human souls.