Combustible Celluloid
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With: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Trystan Putter, Michael Maertens, Imogen Kogge, Felix Romer, Uwe Preuss, Valerie Koch, Eva Bay, Jeff Burrell, Nikola Kastner, Max Hopp, Megan Gay, Kirsten Block, Frank Seppeler, Daniela Holtz, Kathrin Wehlisch, Michael Wenninger, Claudia Geisler
Written by: Christian Petzold, Harun Farocki, based on a novel by Hubert Monteilhet
Directed by: Christian Petzold
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements and brief suggestive material
Language: German, with English subtitles
Running Time: 98
Date: 08/21/2015

Phoenix (2015)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Identity Vex

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Christian Petzold and actors Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld follow up their remarkable Barbara (2013) with an even more striking work. Phoenix tells the story of a little crime taking place in the shadows and ruins of a very large crime. In scene after scene, Petzold impressively finds the appropriate visual scale for his prickly, emotionally rending story.

As the film begins, two women attempt to drive through a check station in the waning days of WWII. Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf) is the driver, and her passenger is called Nelly. Nelly is wrapped in bloody bandages, her face apparently having been nearly destroyed in a concentration camp. A soldier tries to give them a hard time, but when he sees Nelly's face, he quietly lets them pass. Nelly gets reconstructive surgery, while Lene begins to plan an escape to Palestine. But Nelly becomes obsessed with finding her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), whom Lene believes turned Nelly in to the Nazis.

Fitted with a hat and a net over her bruised, healing face, Nelly finds him, a former musician, working in an American-district nightclub called "Phoenix." Sure enough, he doesn't recognize her. Amazingly, he approaches her, and telling her that she looks somewhat like his wife — whom he assumes is dead — he hatches a plan to train her in the ways of his wife and try to collect her large inheritance. Nelly, needing to know how her husband truly feels about her, pretends to go along with this plan.

Here, Phoenix could have turned into a bad Hollywood comedy, based on the traditional "lie" plot, or it could have relied on lazy montages of Nelly learning how to be like her former self, but Petzold's touch is sure. Things like an old grocery list, once innocuous, now have a much more profound significance. Photographs are now decorated with circles and crosses to indicate whether the person depicted is dead or turned Nazi. A scene at Lene's work, the Hall of Jewish Records, gives a sinister undercurrent to the events without being overly obvious. And, best of all, the song "Speak Low" contains many layers and contributes to the movie's "wow" of an ending.

When the word "Holocaust" is used in the descriptions of movies, alarm bells go off. That means the movie is going to be submitted for awards consideration, will be overly earnest, and will likely be a chore to sit through. In Phoenix, Petzold uses it effectively, as a monstrous backdrop for an intimate story. The evil actions of a large mob are hard to comprehend, but its uncertain after-effects on one or two people is much simpler, and more powerful.

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