Phoenix is a compelling post-Holocaust drama, whose narrow focus ends up working for it in the end, even if the film feels a bit small for the subject matter.
When a disfigured Holocaust survivor, Nelly, sneaks her way back into her home time, she starts down a path to reconnect with her friends and family, but most importantly her husband. The drama stems from Nelly’s path to recovery and the underlying mystery of how she was discovered in hiding and sent to the camps.
We never really leave Nelly’s perspective over the course of the film, and while that narrow perspective certainly comes across as limited on more than a few occasions as Phoenix unfolds, I think it makes the film’s final scene that much more effective once you get there. With that said, Nelly’s path always felt a bit off, as I was never really sold on the two-faced nature of her present and past experience. Nelly’s change from pre to post Holocaust never really makes sense. Especially when characters she interacts with say she looks almost exactly like her past self, yet some people from her old life don’t recognize her, while others know her the moment they see her. We are always in the know with Nelly, I think my problem might be that we are never given the other characters’ perspectives; we are supposed to take them at their word they can’t tell the difference. For some reason I couldn’t buy that, even if I get that we are supposed to be experiencing these events the same as Nelly.
The filmmaking is very strong though outside that perspective nitpick. The period is recreated beautifully by director Christian Petzold and his team. Again, there is a smallness to the certain aspects of the picture, but the reconstruction and feel of the film never felt inauthentic. I thought the film might use music more than it did to make this standout from the pack, and it does beautifully in the film’s climactic moment, but once Nelly goes into hiding, the film loses sight of all of that. Petzold is patient and earns his final moment, I just wish the film had have given us one or two more sprinkled throughout.
Nina Hoss is excellent as Nelly, and she doesn’t miss a moment to be telling us something through that character. Her face is just so wonderfully expressive, you can’t help but be transfixed by her. She also makes the subtlest of a gesture absolutely devastating in that fantastic final sequence. Ronald Zehrfeld stars as Nelly’s husband Johnny and I wish he had been more convincing. He is the root of the perspective problem mentioned above, I just couldn’t buy why Nelly would want to get back to this guy. Maybe she shouldn’t, but I couldn’t buy normalcy as Nelly’s reasoning. Hoss makes me want to believe Nelly’s longing, but Zehrfeld’s solemn brooding didn’t do it for me.
Phoenix is probably worth watching for its final moments and Hoss’ performance, but I can’t help but feel like the film could have been something more. It is a handsome picture and will engage you through Nelly’s journey, but your ability to buy the other characters and their point of view will either put you over the top or at an arm’s length from Phoenix.