“Phoenix” Shifts Postwar Identities
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
In “Phoenix” a woman thought dead rises from the ashes. Nelly Lenz, a concentration-camp survivor returns to postwar Berlin in search of her husband. But due to facial reconstruction surgery, he doesn’t recognize her.
This is kind of the reverse of “The Return of Martin Guerre” ("Le retour de Martin Guerre"), in which a man’s identity is challenged when he returns home after the war.
In “Phoenix” -- currently playing at the Tropic Cinema -- the reason Nelly (Nina Hoss) keeps her identity secret is because she wants to discover if her husband (Ronald Zehrfeld) had anything to do with her betrayal to the Nazis.
Turns out, Nelly has inherited money, and her friend Lena (Nina Kunzendorf) suggests they use it to travel to Palestine, where an independent Jewish state is being founded. But Nelly wants to check out her mysterious hubby, who is working in a nearby nightclub called Phoenix. He doesn’t recognize her, but because of her resemblance he asks her to impersonate his wife so he can gain the inheritance.
It’s a cat-and-mouse game, one of shifting personae and shifting loyalties. As Nelly becomes Esther and Esther becomes Nelly, it’s a plot worthy of Hitchcock (Think: “Vertigo”).
As one moviegoer summed it up, “It is a good film that offers us no answers to the questions it poses: how do we survive after everything is taken away, how do we return to a life that no longer exists, whom do we trust now when many of our old friends were Nazi or collaborators during the war, how do we react to someone who returns who we thought was dead, and where do we go when nothing is left of our former life.”
Interesting questions to ponder.
Or, as I suggested, we can just sit back and enjoy a good mystery.