Review by Tom Swift
A plastic surgery altered, Holocaust survivor still loves her German husband — who doesn’t recognize her until it’s too late?
The producers of Phoenix fly almost too close to the sun– by making a high concept film out of the story of an Auschwitz survivor. But they pull it off, making a powerful film about love, loss and rebirth.
The mythical phoenix is a bird that can recreate itself, and that is the story of Netty Lenz, a gifted
singer, who was arrested as a German Jew in late1944 – possibly due to her husband’s betrayal. You’ll find yourself drawn into Netty’s plight by her stoic, shell shocked expression that never really changes –as she’s recovers from plastic surgery and becomes ever more beautiful.
In some ways it’s a mistake not to make her more vocal. You’re constantly wondering what’s going through her mind, and may be that’s a good thing — as you’ll find yourself desperately rooting for her to find something to smile about. Of course, maybe there’s no way for her to talk about the horrors of Auschwitz and still keep this an “entertaining” film. That’s the tightrope the producers’ were walking.
In many ways,this film is about denial. Netty would rather forget her victimhood; Johnny, her husband, would rather forget his possible betrayal . The relief worker, Lene, who adopts Netty and brings her out of the camp, can’t forget the horrors of the Holocaust and commits suicide. Maybe, denial is good.
Netty, however, has inherited a fortune – made rich apparently by the destruction of her family. But she doesn’t really consider herself a Jew and resists Lene’s attempt to move her to Palestine. None of this is really explained, but Netty’s answer is the only one that matters: she’s still in love with Johnny.
How heartbroken she must be when Johnny only thinks she looks rather like Netty. He involves her in a plot to get her own inheritance back. She will pretend to be Netty. He doesn’t catch the manifest clues that Netty must be Netty. And, like a good mystery novel, the story slowly unfolds to what must be one of the most memorable final scenes in a long time.
You’ll find yourself wondering: what just happened? You’ll know and you won’t know. And that is a good sign that you’ve just encountered a true work of art.
Written and directed by noted German filmmaker Christian Petzold, Phoenix keeps you on the edge of your seat with dark, tense atmospherics that slowly come into the sunshine. Nina Hoss as Netty will have you on the edge of tears. Ronald Zehrfeld as Johnny teeters along the edge of sinister and kind. He’s a victim too. No doubt most survivors of the war walked around so shell shocked — that they didn’t believe their own eyes anymore.
But most of all, you’ll find yourself haunted by Netty and her blank stare – that only finds relief when she recreates herself and sings once again.