Directed by Christian Petzold, the post WW2 drama stars recurring collaborator Nina Hoss.
In the aftermath of the war, friends Nelly (Hoss) and Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) return to normal life in Berlin. Disfigured in a concentration camp, Nelly undergoes surgery but fails to recover her past looks.
Their siblings and most of their acquaintances are dead, but Nelly’s husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfield) is unaccounted for. Nelly’s search brings her to Berlin’s occupied American quarter and a nightclub called Phoenix. There, she finds Johnny working as a labourer. Assuming she’s a stranger looking for work, Johnny involves Nelly in a scheme to imitate his ‘deceased’ wife and help claim her inheritence.
Phoenix was a let down because it begins so promisingly. While fascism is no more, there still seems to be an air of anti-Jewish sentiment built up over the years. Lene’s nationalism brings her shame and there’s a struggle to reconcile being Jewish with being German. Lene and Nelly’s reintegration to post Nazi-Germany is intriguing and I wish it had been explored further. However, when Nelly reconnects with her husband, the film becomes all about the convoluted plan and therein lies the flaw.
When Nelly asks Johnny if she resembles his wife, he says no. That he hadn’t asked another woman to play his wife before then and selects his actual wife is hard to buy. Johnny is unable to identify Nelly by any characteristic – her voice, her teeth, her kiss – yet the couple’s past associates all recognise her. Johnny comes off as the least perceptive man ever. If you amplify your disbelief, it’s still far-fetched.
Nina Hoss is remarkable throughout, but not quite enough to salvage Phoenix.