Film review: Phoenix is beautifully crafted

We check out critically-acclaimed drama Phoenix:

Set during the end of World War II, Phoenix is the story of Nelly (Nina Hoss), Auschwitz survivor and former cabaret singer who returns to her hometown, Berlin, in search of her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) who assumes she is dead. Unrecognisable due to the fact a bullet wound has badly damaged her face, she returns in hope of rekindling the relationship with her husband Johnny and to rebuild her past life.

Directed by German director Christian Petzold, Phoenix takes into account the sociopolitical space of which the film operates, resonating with a large part of both Jewish and German history, in particular the events of the Holocaust, and treating the subject matter with great respect. It chooses to provide viewers with a case study on Nelly’s societal rebirth and integration back into her community, rather than painting a grim picture of the occurrences and the horrors of war.

It’s a refreshing approach, beautifully shot and the minimal use of character in the story enhances the ever-shifting dynamics of the fragile relationships between characters portrayed in the film, in particular the relationship between Nelly and Johnny, inviting viewers to be sensitive to changes as they occur.

Although settled in a nice apartment with her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) as a result of an inheritance of her family’s estate, Nelly chooses however to seek Johnny and return to her past.

Haunted by the spell of nostalgia, Nelly’s past carries her to the setting of a club called Phoenix, a place at which Johnny works and a place at which she hopes to rekindle her relationship with him.

During their initial meeting, when Johnny fails to recognise Nelly although he states that she looks similar to his late wife, the validity of their relationship is put into question when he suggests she pose as his late wife for a cut of Nelly’s inheritance. Here Johnny scripts a life and a Nelly that he perceives as perfect training her accordingly to suit his desires.

Petzold reveals to his audience early on, a truth through Lene’s discovery of Johnny’s betrayal which resulted in Nelly’s arrest, a fact Nelly refuses to believe until the very end of the film, making the story compelling to watch. Nelly agrees obediently to the scam, shrouding herself in the falsehood of what once was stating, ‘I want to look exactly like I used to.’

Phoenix presents us a tale of obstructed identity through the use of visual techniques such as silhouette or costume. Nelly is covered in bandages, veils, makeup and clothing brought by other characters in the film. As a character Nelly is subdued, passive and obedient and this is reflected throughout, with shots composed placing her slightly off frame, all of which keeps her hidden for most of the film.

Phoenix’s romanticised portrayal of Nelly and in particular of her past creates a veil of which we also look through, obstructed by the hope that Nelly and Johnny will return to what they once had.

Incorporating techniques of slow motion, the use of stringed instruments and low key lighting to create visual contrasts similar to that of film noir, Nelly’s character is subdued, hidden, obeying Johnny’s instructions for most of the film.

As a stranger, Nelly slowly learns the truth about Johnny, becoming acquainted with the realities of his betrayal. Although the film feels slow in its pacing, the tension is maintained through uncertainty of the relationship between Nelly and Johnny who are both dishonest with one another. What results is an overhanging uncertainty surrounding the legitimacy of Nelly’s newfound relationship with her husband Johnny.

That said, Phoenix is not only a film about the Nelly’s recovery as a Holocaust survivor but presents us with a beautifully crafted tale that understands the fragility surrounding the inevitable breakdown of a relationship and of what once was.



Review by Addy Fong.