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
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
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
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
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,
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.
by Christian Petzold
Hoss, Zehrfeld and Kunzendorf
Santa Fe Reporter