In the World War II drama Phoenix, Nelly (Nina Hoss) is liberated from the concentration camp Auschwitz, but she has been wounded to the point of facial disfigurement. Following reconstructive surgery that leaves her appearance slightly altered, Nelly spends her nights searching for her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) at the night club Phoenix.
The street outside of Phoenix is a wash of red light that gives the bar a foreboding aura. Nelly, her face masked in a black veil that further conceals her identity, looks on in almost a surprised horror as she discovers her husband. She calls out to him, but he only hears enough of it to hesitate for a moment before walking away. She returns to Phoenix the next day to find that Johnny has also altered his identity, calling himself Johannes and working as a server at the club.
When Johnny and Nelly meet again, Johnny does not recognize his wife. Thinking that Nelly had died in the camps, he has been trying to get her weighty inheritance. Johnny decides to take this new woman in and have her assume the identity of Nelly in order to obtain the inheritance. All the while, he is unaware that the woman he is asking to impersonate his wife is in fact his wife.
Phoenix is an experiment in dramatic irony and an exploration of a reformed identity given a traumatic, identity destroying experience. There is a fascination in watching Nelly accept being continually unrecognized by her own husband. There may be a drabness to the pacing and a stripped down simplicity to its setting, but there is something undeniably engrossing about the back and forth between Nelly and Johnny as he attempts to transform her into his image of Nelly. His Nelly is an old Nelly, one that lives in the past and likely died the moment that she was arrested by the Gestapo.
Hoss’s almost silent performance as Nelly is hauntingly majestic, her face a range of complex emotions that reflect bitter dimensions of thought laying underneath. Zehrfeld’s Johnny plays off of this incredible depth well by being completely–almost willfully–ignorant to the undercurrent of trauma that exists inside the woman in front of him. His one track mind forces the real Nelly behind him, leaving in its stead some specter of the past that he can now only recreate for his own selfish benefit.
The film is quiet, scored mainly by lazily tweeting birds or the occasional ticking of a clock. The silence creates a mood of tense isolation that remains throughout, helping guide us toward the isolation that must exist in Nelly, an isolation that allows her to consent to the exploitation at the hands of Johnny.
Accompanied by a brilliant performance by its lead and a passionate, tense climax, Phoenix overcomes early pacing issues to become a welcome addition to the expansive WWII film canon.
When viewed as a case study, Phoenix is chilling. The protagonist Nelly has just recently escaped from a place whose goal is to strip away the very identity of its prisoners, and she is quickly thrown into a similar environment at the hands of her husband. Only this second time, her identity is being stripped away for the sake of returning her to some dream version of her past self. This leaves Nelly deeply conflicted, a conflict that is evident on Hoss’s face throughout the film. Hoss’s performance truly makes this movie, and it is a performance that is not to be missed.
As always, thanks for reading!
Have you seen Phoenix? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!
–Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)