Nina Hoss, Nina Kunzendorf, Ronald Zehrfeld
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Berlin, 1945, and Nina Hoss (Nelly Lenz) emerges from the horror of German concentration camps with her face grievously disfigured. A genius surgeon restores her features, and she sets off to find the husband who believes she is dead and who may have betrayed her to the Nazis. Johnny, the said husband (Ronald Zehrfeld), stumbles on Nina in the Phoenix nightclub, and struck by her uncanny resemblance to his dead wife, he hatches a scheme: if Nina will pretend to be his wife, alive and returned, they can collect the recompense money owed her and split it down the middle. The scheme set in motion, they incrementally begin to learn the truer nature of one another’s identities.
Phoenix is an understated film with an intriguing synopsis that belies the ordinariness of its actuality. The problem is that it relies on holocaust signifiers to automate a meaningfulness which is otherwise absent. Instead it falls back on the reverence of the viewer to deviate attention from its own tepidness, glacial pace, and borderline ridiculousness: that Johnny is so incapable of recognising his own wife, or that immediately released from a concentration camp she undergoes world-class surgery and commits to playing the ingénue are both facets which require accentuated degrees of belief suspension.
This would be less problematic were Phoenix an unabashed potboiler, but its earnestness, however well-meaning, suggests only serious-holocaust-drama. In other words, it trips itself up by being squarely neorealist on one hand, and imposing Hitchcockian artifice on the other, so that it fails to work as either because its narrative artifice and its sombre realism are incompatible. What redeems Phoenix somewhat is that the performances are moving enough to preclude the environment that situates them, although that same talent also means this is even more a missed opportunity.