Christian Petzold’s German thriller “Phoenix,” which ended its run at the Avon Cinema last week, plays extensively with its namesake’s symbolism. Emerging from Greek mythology, the phoenix signifies rebirth, or resurrection. The landscape, characters and narrative of the thriller fittingly gasp for the first breath of new life after World War II.
The set, designed and decorated by Kade Gruber and Christin Busse respectively, echoes those of the Trummerfilm. This genre of postwar European film utilized the rubble of bombed out cities, particularly Berlin, to emphasize the stark reality of the conflict and its consequences for survivors.
Nelly, played by Nina Hoss, is one such survivor. A former nightclub singer, Nelly returns home from a German concentration camp with a disfigured face — the victim of a gunshot wound — and no remaining family. She is the sole survivor of a lost life, save for a friend Lene — played by Nina Kunzendorf, who works tirelessly to help Nelly rehabituate — and Nelly’s husband Johnny, played by Ronald Zehrfeld, who staunchly believed his wife died at the camp.
Nelly receives reconstructive surgery and strives to reignite her marriage with Johnny, two of the film’s prominent emblems of ruin-cum-rebirth. But when the doctor asks her whom she wishes to resemble — her face is apparently so contorted that she is a blank slate for design — Nelly insists that she look like her former self. Nelly’s request to regain her features and her desperate desire to return to the way things were challenge notions of rebirth, speaking to the tension between reconciling the past and pursuing the future in a country crippled by economic and moral despair.
The thrill of the film hinges on the twisted relationship between Johnny and Nelly, as Johnny enlists Nelly, who now goes by Eva, to play the role of his wife to friends and officials in order to obtain her large inheritance. When Lene shares devastating information about Johnny, Nelly’s marriage and the film slowly and heart-wrenchingly unravel.
Hoss, Zehrfeld and Kunzendorf perform each role with gripping authenticity. Petzold’s characters converse largely through twitching facial expressions and startled or somber eyes. Words in this postwar Germany seem evasive; they feel heavy and difficult to articulate. Nelly’s vulnerability, confusion and ultimate redemption mirror her country’s as it struggles to find its footing amid destruction. “Phoenix” explores what is left unsaid and navigates what must be said about returning to a place and to people who have done you wrong.