We were not exactly clamoring to go see Christian Petzold’s latest flick, Phoenix, not having been huge fans of Barbara, but it was an intriguing, almost Danielle Steele/Harold Robbins/Judith Krantz plotline, which we thought would be interesting in the hands of such a restrained director.
Our protagonist, Nelly, is driven into Berlin after being shot in the face in a concentration camp. Her friend, Lene, puts her up and helps through extensive reconstructive surgery. Nelly, a Jew, is obsessed with finding her gentile husband Johnny, from whom she was separated (along with all her gentile friends) when dragged off to the camp.
Lene is against it. Johnny betrayed Nelly, she says, and is agitating to get her money (as her widower). Nelly, who’s suffering from an identity crisis, can’t let it go, though, and hunts Johnny down. When she finds him, he doesn’t recognize her, but he does think she looks enough like her former self to be useful in a scam to get Nelly’s money.
And there’s your movie.
It’s positively lurid, isn’t it? And the book it was based on was filmed before as Return from the Ashes with Maximilian Schell, Samantha Eggar and Herbert Lom. But that movie was a thriller. This movie…is not.
That’s an observation, not a critique. Much like Barbara, scenes that might have been played as a edge-of-your-seat suspense are played super straight. Everything is played super straight. I could say Petzold lacks showmanship, but that’s not really the case: There are some breathtakingly good shots and the final scene is powerful—it really knocked the Boy’s socks off—without any orchestral score playing, without any big reactions, without straying from the basically austere style of the whole film.
There’s something to be said for not going the whole made-for-TV-miniseries route, after all, but you should know going in it is a movie with a whole lot of tension, where the payout is internal to the characters. It doesn’t even answer the big questions. You’re left to decide the sincerity of Johnny’s feelings toward Nelly, Lene’s feelings toward Nelly, all of her friends feeling towards them. Sometimes that can piss me off, but didn’t here.
Fine Teutonic acting from Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld, both of Barbara, with great supporting subtext from Nina Kuzendorf, of Woman in Gold.