One half of Christian Petzold’s Phoenix is an arresting period drama about redefining oneself after a devastating tragedy. The other half is a mystery consisting of drawn-out contrivances. The viewer feels one heck of a tug-o-war as they vary between liking Phoenix and becoming fed up with it.
Even when Phoenix derails itself with unconvincing misunderstandings, the film never loses the captivating performances. Petzold’s cast fits seamlessly within the post-WWII backdrop with fantastic assistance from detailed costume design and art direction. After winning praise from starring in previous films helmed by Petzold, Nina Hoss teams up with the filmmaker once again to play the role of Nelly Lenz, a Jewish concentration camp survivor with multiple wounds – including nasty harm to her physical appearance.
To everyone but her friend Lene, Nelly is dead. However, after undergoing surgery, she’s given another look and a second chance. She’s forced to deal with a societal struggle of starting from scratch. She ‘s blown away and scared by how well she quietly melts into the crowd, but she misses her original self.
When Nelly embarks on a personal journey to reunite with her husband Johnny (played by Ronald Zehrfeld), the audience is attentive. We have seen Nelly lose it all and watched Hoss skillfully perform while masked by coiled cloth around her head. Now, we’re watching her try to fit in as she reclaims her romance. Hoss is absolutely remarkable.
That’s the interesting and thrilling mystery, which Phoenix isn’t all that happy with. When Nelly meets up with an unaware Johnny, the husband has a plan to cash in on his late wife’s inheritance. Nelly apprehensively goes along with the plan without spilling a word about her true identity.
When this shady scheme is put to work, Phoenix wipes the slate clean and begins from scratch. If the story had built on the previous secrets, then this alternate heist may have worked within its context. I understand Petzold and Harun Farocki are adapting Hubert Monteilhet’s novel Le Retour des cendres and can’t exactly stray away from the author’s original work. However, the screenwriters can at least make these raising stakes transition without a hitch. The audience shouldn’t feel the movie slamming on brakes while it scrambles to reconfigure its narrative.
Nelly unrealistically waffles and ponders, while suave Johnny tries to woo the female audience. Movie goers may not be able to stop appreciating gorgeous set pieces and terrific performances, but we can just as easily grow disinterested in a story when the film itself is doing just that.