Berlin, June 1945, two women travel in a car, one is bandaged and bloodied. She has been badly injured, her face destroyed. An Auschwitz survivor whose family has been murdered in the Holocaust, this is Nelly (Nina Hoss) returning to her hometown, Berlin. Taking care of her and keeping her company is her old friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) who is also a Jewish Agency employee.
The only thing that has kept Nelly alive is the thought of finding and returning to her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Her desire is so strong, she refuses to believe Lene when she's told her Johnny betrayed her. For her, finding Johnny validates her existence while she does her best to rise from the ashes of a life destroyed, a family obliterated.
She searches the clubs for her musician husband and finds him at the 'Phoenix'. She calls out 'Johnny'. He turns around at the sound of his name being called and looks right through her like she doesn't exist. He doesn't recognise her. Wanting to be close to Johnny, she looks for work at the Phoenix; her attempts noticed by Johnny. As she's turfed out, he comes after her with a proposal, for she looks like someone who could do with some assistance.
He tells her she resembles his wife who is dead and that he'd like her to play the part. He wants her inheritance which he can't lay his hands on, without proof of death. Nelly finds herself playing an impostor of herself, wanting to know if what Lene warned her about was true. As she turns herself into Nelly, Johnny feels stirrings he refuses to acknowledge and tells her to stop trying too hard to be Nelly, because she's not Nelly. His wife is dead!
This 98 minute long film reunites the two main actors (Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld) and the director (Christian Petzold) once again. Their previous collaboration was on the 2012 film 'Barbara', (another wonderful film I was lucky enough to see) performing the same roles of actors and director. Barbara won several awards including the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 2012 Berlinale, and was selected as one of the 'top 5 foreign language films' by the USA National Board of Review.
The film's further accolades include a nomination for the European Film Award and a silver German Film Award. Nina Hoss was awarded the Capri Hollywood European Actress Award and was nominated for the European Film Award, while Ronald Zehrfeld was nominated for the German Film Award as Best Supporting Actor.
Phoenix has the same essence of brilliance but with heavier overtones of tragic lives; the basis of film noir. There are stark contrasts, but it's not devoid of colour or dripping with depression. Yet in many scenes you feel like you're taking in air laden with so much humidity, it falls heavy onto the deepest part of your soul. The seasoned main actors and supporting actress (Lene) Nina Kunzendorf are stellar in their roles, expressing great intensity when required, yet displaying subtlety so as not to hit you with the answers like a sledge hammer. It's no surprise these well known stars come with multiple awards to their names.
This film is a must-see that displays the complexities of rebuilding lives when one has been de-humanised. Finding home and self again with deceit and betrayal at play, the decision has to be made whether one feels alive and closer to the living, or to the dead.