A Phoenix by definition is a bird that is reborn cyclically, rising through the ashes of its predecessor. When the audience is introduced to Nelly Lenz, the death of her – or at least the current her – whatever Nelly Lenz was prior is gone. The audience first sees Nelly with her face covered in bandages, silently sitting in the car next to Lene Winter. They are driving through an American barrier into Germany, Jewish hostilities only recently cooling.
Christian Petzold’s Phoenix takes place during the aftermath of WWII Germany, with Jewish segregation at the forefront of the German conscious, Germany has only started to come to grips with it’s war crimes, and the victims are left to pick up the pieces. Petzold does a stellar job in introducing us to this extremely delicate set piece, with the wreckage of buildings scattering Germany, its citizens left to literally pick up the pieces.
The core of the story surrounds Nelly and her relationship to her Husband Johnny (Johannes) Lenz, a cleaner at a Nightclub (aptly called ‘Phoenix’). With Johnny thinking that Nelly died in the Holocaust, he fails to recognise her at all, and instead has her imitate herself (which she goes along with) in order to get a stake in the $40’000 she ‘left behind’. Alas, Nelly has to decide whether to go on with the facade or move to Palestine with Lene where there is much less of the anti semitism which is still being felt in Germany. The plot takes a few turns but takes strength in its predictability – in that the characters make very human choices which are completely understandable, considering the dire circumstances surrounding them.
The cinematography of Phoenix (masterfully crafted by Hans Fromm) is done with such delicacy in that one scene doesn’t shine over any other, the colour palette that Fromm and Petzold have picked is entirely naturalistic, there isn’t one stunning shot selection and there doesn’t need to be, as it may have taken away from the film overall.
There weren’t very many flaws with Phoenix, despite its predictability. This can be a deterrent for some who wanted to go into this film thinking there’d be a big twist, but Phoenix isn’t about twists and turns in its story. Phoenix shows you all its cards early, and you’re simply there to watch it all unravel.