Stop me if you've heard this one before. A woman (Nelly, played by Nina Hoss) survives the Holocaust, seriously disfigured, and doctors try to reconstruct her face, which has been seriously damaged. She ends up looking similar to her old self, but not exactly the same. Seeking out her husband (Johnny, played by Ronald Zehrfeld), despite warnings that he may have been the one to betray her to the Nazis, she becomes embroiled in a plan that requires her to pretend to be his "dead wife" in order to collect her sizeable inheritance and turn a very bad situation into a good, profitable, one. Can she keep up the charade, and will she find out, once and for all, whether or not Johnny really did betray her?
Adapted from a novel, The Return From The Ashes, by Hubert Monteilhet, this is a film that feels very much in the middle of harsh reality and dark fairytale. It's the royalty returning in disguise to take over the kingdom, on the one hand, but it's also very much showing someone painfully trying to put back together the shattered windows of their soul. Someone who assumed they were going to die, and then somehow survived, and everything beyond that point is both a blessing and a confounding mess. Because how do you move forward from your death?
Hoss is superb in the role of Nelly, a woman trying to remain composed on the surface as she is both attracted and repulsed by the idea of reclaiming her former life. Zehrfeld plays his character in a way that is suitably ambiguous, considering the circumstances, allowing for tension to build as we head towards a climax that may yet reveal some painful truths. And, an important third party in the plot, Nina Kunzendorf is very good as Lene Winter, the woman who helps her friend head home after her ordeal, and who tries to warn her against her plan.
Although it may seem like a ridiculously contrived, over the top, melodrama, Phoenix is a gripping film, one that manages to make a big impact without resorting to scenes of major histrionics or war movie stereotypes. Director Christian Petzoid, who worked with Harun Farocki in adapting the story to the screen, does a remarkable job, showing restraint throughout and allowing the strength of the lead performances to carry the viewers along, providing a lot of food for thought while never bringing things to a halt in order to hammer home any one particular point. Double-bill this with Son Of Saul and you have quite the devastating display of the impact of the Holocaust on individuals, and how that machinery of genocide would grind down the humanity in those who were somehow surviving, one day at a time.
I'm very surprised that there hasn't been some remake of this already. Perhaps it's viewed as something too unbelievable, even for Hollywood, but truth can be stranger than fiction, as we all know, and this does more than enough to make everything seem entirely believable, from the harrowing first scenes all the way to an emotionally-charged and brilliant final moment.
You can buy the movie here.