MPAA Rating: PG-13 | Rating: ★★★★½
Release year: 2014
Genre: Drama Director: Petzold

How much can love endure? A moment of infidelity, a discovery of a terrible secret hidden from a spouse, even neglect or abuse? Perhaps. What about the utmost betrayal, the selling out of one’s beloved for personal safety and financial gain with full knowledge that these actions would lead to the horrific torture and death of your lover? Phoenix explores the limits of love and forgiveness in the context of a post-WWII Germany, a nation still reeling from its own atrocities and betrayal of its very humanity.

Phoenix opens with friends Lene and Nelly as they seek a surgeon. Both are Jewish women who have survived the nightmare of the Holocaust, but at terrible costs. Nelly’s face has been brutally damaged in a concentration camp, and Lene has found a doctor who will reconstruct and heal her visage. When the bandages are removed, Nelly sees a new face peering back at her in the mirror, one she doesn’t quite recognize. This was has changed her in every way.

Nelly’s primary desire is to seek out her husband Johnny, but Lene seems opposed to her friend’s quest. She knows the truth: Johnny divorced Nelly only days before her discovery and arrest, and the evidence points to Johnny’s betrayal of his Jewish wife into the hands of the Nazis. Lene is hardened and bitter, and wants nothing more than for Nelly and herself to seek refuge in the promised land of Israel. But Nelly is consumed by her desire for Johnny, and despite Lene’s hesitations, she ultimately finds him as a busboy for a local cabaret, appropriately named “Phoenix.” Alarmingly, Johnny doesn’t recognize her with her resurrected countenance, but he does make a proposition to her: impersonate his dead wife, and reap the vast inheritance she is due as reparations for her deceased family, murdered by the Nazis.

Each of the main characters in Phoenix are elaborate, complex, and mesmerizing, and I found myself captivated by its taut script, powerful cinematography, and wonderful use of music and silence to communicate its ideas and stir one’s emotions. Phoenix stirs up a longing for the truth to be told, for confessions to be made, and for either reconciliation or retribution to be enacted. Was there a genuine betrayal on the part of the husband, or was he just as shocked and pained by his wife’s arrest? Can Nelly bring herself to face Johnny as herself, or will she continue to play the role he has created for her? Filmmaker Christian Petzold draws a strong parallel with Hitchcock’s Vertigo without become a lesser copy of its predecessor; Phoenix is its own film, and stands on its own merits, and the direct allusions to Vertigo are in its favor. The film also brings to mind Eyes Without a Face and The Face of Another, two other films that intertwine obsession, romance, and the resurrected face of a disfigured beloved. The obsession of Johnny to re-create his supposedly deceased wife is ambiguous in its nature—does he genuinely long to see his wife again in any way he can, or is he driven by greed for her inheritance money? The film doesn’t condemn Johnny for his actions; it simply presents them, inviting the audience to put themselves in both Johnny’s and Nelly’s shoes, to empathize with each character’s grief, loss, and coping mechanisms.

Phoenix ends with a paradoxically obscure and satisfying conclusion, an ending that invites interpretation and debate while also offering a universal catharsis. As the screen faded to black, no one in my theater stirred; every person was noticeably affected by the emotional final moments, stunned into immobility by the poignant weight of the film. I don’t wish to spoil these moments for you, dear reader, because this is a film worth seeing and experiencing without spoil. Yet it does seem that love and resurrection are two sides of the same coin, an enduring fidelity that transcends even death in its reach and power.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13:6-7)

Phoenix is presently streaming on Netflix in the US.

IMDB Listing:

See all reviews

Comments are closed.