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PHOENIX Scars Of War

Phoenix
Phoenix

Directed by Christian Petzold 

Starring Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf 

Having survived a concentration camp, a young Jewish singer returns to an almost destroyed Berlin attempting to rebuild after the war. Although re-constructive surgery has restored her face after a close call from a Nazi bullet, the woman she once was is still a distant memory. Nelly (Nina Hoss) tries to work out what to do with her life and her new found inheritance. While her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf ) recommends rebuilding her life in Palestine along with other Jewish settlers, Nelly can only think of her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld),  who Nelly still loves, but who doesn’t recognise her any more. A husband that, upon encountering a woman that looks vaguely like his wife but acts nothing like her, schemes to obtain Nelly’s fortune. A husband that, after hiding her for a year during the war, may have finally betrayed her to the Nazis.

Touching on an aspect of war that is often overlooked by films in favour of the explosions of the battlelines or the tension of the home front, this instead shows the aftermath.  It is a carefully constructed piece about rebuilding a life after war. Central to Phoenix is Nina Hoss’ performance, and the film is utterly convincing and heartbreaking because of it. At all times she is timid and downcast to the point of  being terrified. Her steps are small and ordered, her posture drawn in upon herself, her eyes downcast and avoiding contact. Nelly is a shadow of the woman she used to be, traumatised and taught to avoid drawing attention.

Even though little is said of the horror she has suffered in the camps, the audience can’t help but feel it – be that in her terrified subservience to a thug, or the horror she expresses at an oncoming train. These realisations of why common situations terrify her grant the viewer a greater empathy for the character. Her quest to find out who she was and to reconnect to that person again is really the core of the movie, despite the contrived nature of the plot or Johnny’s scheme. Like the devastated Berlin around her, she must rebuild her identity. The pay off is wonderful, leading to an ending that will leave you speechless.

Phoenix is a deftly handled film that approaches its subject matter with the tentativeness of its protagonist. It certainly benefits from this, as its careful approach isn’t reliant on sentimentality or manipulation, but rather by gaining the empathy of the audience. The Holocaust, the reconstruction of Germany, the formation of Israel, and guilt – all are touched on by this film. However the main thrust is the rebuilding of a shattered psyche and the strange misplaced love that forms the instrument to do this. Part Hitchcockian thriller, part romance, part survival tale it manages to balance all its elements beautifully.

DAVID O’CONNELL

Phoenix  screens at Somerville, UWA  from Monday, March 30, until Sunday, April 5, and ECU Joondalup Pines from Tuesday, April 7, until Sunday, April 12, as part of Lotterywest Festival Films. For tickets and session times, go to perthfestival.com.au.

 

 

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