“She’s not Eva Braun,” says a dark-haired woman to an American Soldier as she halts her car at a checkpoint. Another woman, bandages covering her face, sits in the passenger seat. “Eva Braun is dead,” says the soldier. This is Germany in 1945: the war is over but suspicion lingers between those who remain and return.
Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) is one of those returning. Disfigured but having survived the concentration camps, she undergoes facial reconstruction surgery leaving her with only a passing resemblance to how she once looked. A sole surviving member of her family, she’s broken and desperate to reclaim her life among the rubble of Berlin.
In beautifully choreographed and protracted night scenes, Nelly seeks out her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may or may not have betrayed her to the Nazis. Assuming Nelly is long-dead, but seeing a passing resemblance, he unwittingly invites her to steal her own identity to collect her inheritance.
Christian Petzold’s tale of deception and despair brings a lesser-told story of Berlin and its inhabitants adjusting to after the war. It thoughtfully imagines the struggle of Jewish people returning to Germany, where friends are now betrayers in a no-man’s-land of mistrust, shame and continuing hostility.
The success of this film, Petzold’s seventh major feature, is in its balance of storytelling and suspense. The backdrop reminds us that humanity is capable of anything; these are complex characters, forced to roam the moral labyrinth of this fantastical, implausible plot.
With a grieving jazz score by Stefan Will underlining Hoss’ brilliantly austere performance, this film is a tribute to both noir and Hitchcock as much as it is an original story of human nature at its most complex. Phoenix’s impact is quiet but lingering, showing the fickleness of society under pressure and offering no resolution.
Phoenix is released nationwide on 8th May 2015.
Watch the trailer for Phoenix here: