Take a Drink: for every mention of Palestine
Take a Drink: for every time jump signified by an improvement in Nelly’s condition
Take a Drink: whenever Johnny is a solid gold asshole
Do a Shot: for song and dance numbers
By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
There are ample Holocaust films focused on the experiences of victims of the Holocaust both before and in the concentration camps. But what comes after?
Phoenix examines that for one camp survivor, Nelly (Nina Hoss), who was so badly disfigured in her time there that a surgeon has to reconstruct her face as best as he can. She returns to her German city in search of her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who doesn’t recognize her, but does recruit her to impersonate herself to get a hold of her own inheritance. Still in love with him, and determined to discover whether it was he who betrayed her to the Nazis, she agrees.
There is so much going on under the surface of this story and these characters, but the beauty of writer and director Christian Petzold’s script is how simple and straightforward he makes everything feel. The heart of the film is Nelly and Johnny’s relationship, and how the potential sins of the past affect it. The convolutions just serve to clarify.
The flip side.
Nelly has understandable identity issues- not just because she doesn’t recognize herself in the mirror, but even her nationality. Is she no longer German if she was sent to the camps for being Jewish? Is she Jewish even if she never really identified as such as an adult? Compounding this is how Johnny tries to train her to be, well, her, but these lessons are filtered through his memories of her. This heady brew and the mystery of whether she was betrayed by this man she loved (and perhaps still loves) grabs you and doesn’t let go up to one of the best mic drop endings I’ve ever seen.
Style-wise, Petzold has fun with his noir tropes, creating grimy, smoke-filled sets that are almost tactile and costuming a 1950s starlet would feel at home in… it’s all around top of the line.
Phoenix does take a bit of time getting to the meat of its plot, and won’t hold your hand getting there. Its stinginess with information forces you to trust that it’ll all be worth it in the end.
It’s definitely worth it. Phoenix shows us a fascinating relatively unexplored angle of the Holocaust… namely the deep pain and confusion of reconstructing an identity and restarting life after it.