‘Phoenix’: Recovering pieces of who she used to be

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SHARE ‘Phoenix’: Recovering pieces of who she used to be

By Bill Goodykoontz | Gannett News Service

When you lose your sense of self — when it is torn from you — how do you regain it?

“Phoenix,” from director Christian Petzold, doesn’t offer easy answers to the question, other than to portray it as extremely painful and difficult. Its mystery-like trappings and twists keep us not so much guessing as waiting, to see who knows what and how that knowledge will be revealed — and what that revelation will mean.

Nelly (frequent Petzold star Nina Hoss), a Jewish nightclub singer who used to perform with her husband in Berlin, was shot in the face and left for dead in a concentration camp in World War II. She lost her entire family in the camps. After reconstructive surgery, she returns to an American-occupied Berlin, where her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) has set her up in an apartment.

But all Nelly is interested in is finding her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) — if he survived the war. He did, though Lene begs her to leave him alone; she’s convinced Johnny gave Nelly up to the Nazis to save his own life.

Such protests are futile, of course. Nelly obsessed over Johnny in the camps, thinking that if he lived, it would give her reason to. He used to play piano while she sang. Now, he’s a busboy in a club called Phoenix. (Of course, it’s a metaphor. Is it ever not?) When Nelly finally goes up to him, he looks right through her — he doesn’t recognize her after her face has been rebuilt.

This is crushing; Nelly already doesn’t recognize herself (though she is plenty beautiful). She’s practically a ghost. But Johnny, who insists that she call him Johannes, does find her useful. She resembles his wife who died in the war, he tells her. She stood to inherit a fortune, so he proposes a deal: He will train her to be like Nelly, coming back from the camps alive. Once they get the money, they’ll split it and get on with their individual lives.This is cruel in the extreme, Johnny training Nelly, who has survived the unthinkable, to be Nelly. Yet she goes along with the plan, to Lene’s horror (and ours) because … why? It lets her be with Johnny. But in the guise of learning how to play her more convincingly, she also asks lots of questions about Johnny and Nelly’s life together before the war, when they performed as a duo.

It’s heartbreaking and uncomfortable. She tells a harrowing story of her experience, so painful it’s draining. How does she know this story, Johnny demands? Nelly lowers her eyes and tells him she read it somewhere.

You have to suspend some disbelief along the way to buy that he wouldn’t recognize his wife, or that she wouldn’t tell him. But Petzold, as is his habit, doesn’t slow down for details like this. He forges ahead in search of a bigger story, one of identity and value, of where we fit in. That prevents Johnny from being a complete heel — everyone here is lost, shattered, unsure of how to proceed in the world, a world so different from the one they used to inhabit. It all builds to the culmination of Johnny’s plan, but not before twists are revealed and facts finally brought to light.

Hoss is perfect in a challenging role, a woman trying to recover bits of the person she once was, but having to do so in service to a greedy scheme that robs her of the very identity she is trying to recover. She and Zehrfeld were outstanding together in “Barbara,” Petzold’s last film. They’re just as good here, if not better.

And the ending is stunning, a brilliant and forceful reclamation that doesn’t necessarily provide answers, but does provide hard-earned satisfaction.

[s3r star=3/4]

Sundance Selects presents a film directed by written and directed by Christian Petzold, based on the novel “Le retour des cendres” by Hubert Monteilhet. In German with English subtitles. Running time: 98minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some thematic elements and brief suggestive material). Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.

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