Watching Phoenix, you’ll be tempted to ask yourself, “Why aren’t thoughtful movies for adults made in the United States? What happened to middle-budget dramas geared toward people over 25?”
Congratulations! You’re tired of the infantilization of mainstream American filmmaking. While you may not think a new Star Wars flick is a bad thing, you also understand that there are truly superb films that are just as exciting and breathtaking, and nary a shot is fired.
These film reviews are rapidly turning into rants—I promise to try not to do that so often, beginning next issue—but God damn it, there are so many horrendous pieces of shit being released each week that it’s really hard not to get discouraged. Take a look at the top five moneymakers on any given Monday and try not to stab yourself in the face.
This week, we’re not stabbing ourselves in the face. We’re rejoicing in Phoenix, a German movie that is smartly and emotionally written, is beautifully acted, has a camera in the right spot with the right lighting in scene after scene and asks that the audience think for itself instead of leading it around by the dick.
Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) drives her friend Nelly Lenz toward an American checkpoint in Germany. It’s shortly after World War II, and Nelly, a Jew, has been disfigured in a concentration camp.
The American soldier demands that Nelly remove her bandages so that he may see she’s not smuggling in weapons or, worse, Nazis. Nelly begins to unwrap herself, and the camera returns to the GI. After a moment, he looks down at the ground. “Sorry,” he says quietly and turns away.
One can just imagine what Nelly’s face looks like—we never see, wisely—but before long, she and Lene are at a surgeon’s office. “I want to look exactly like I used to,” Nelly tells him.
The task proves to be impossible—there are no clear photos of Nelly’s face in Lene’s possession—but the doctor does the best he can. In the end, Nelly looks like the actress Nina Hoss, who is a pretty good person to resemble.
From there, Phoenix takes off, becoming a quiet drama with mounting tension and more than a few nods to Alfred Hitchcock and Carol Reed. Nelly, a former nightclub singer, is consumed with finding her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), a pianist. When she finds him at Phoenix—a nightclub almost literally rising from Berlin’s ashes (and bricks)—he doesn’t recognize her but thinks she looks enough like Nelly to pull a scam. Nelly has a big inheritance coming to her, and Johnny wants half.
He tells Nelly—again, not realizing it’s his wife—that he’ll split the proceeds with her if she plays herself in front of the proper authorities long enough to collect. And Nelly, wanting both to be close to him and to find out how the Nazis discovered and arrested her, agrees.
That’s all within the first 20 or so minutes of Phoenix. It asks so many questions and provides few enough answers that it will be the subject of debate long after the credits roll. For example—what kind of person hides his wife for years from the Nazis and then finally lets her slip away? Was Nelly’s arrest by chance? How do gentile Germans deal with the knowledge that they let millions of their countrymen and -women die, willingly and sometimes gleefully?
Hoss and director Christian Petzold have made several films together, including the excellent Barbara (2012), and here’s hoping their partnership continues. Do yourself a favor: Skip The Man from U.N.C.L.E. this weekend. See Phoenix.
Directed by Christian Petzold
With Hoss, Zehrfeld and Kunzendorf