“Phoenix,” a suspenseful drama from Germany, burns slowly, quietly.
Adding to the haunted tone of this story set in ruined post-World War II Berlin, the film largely has no musical score. When music does appear, it’s incidental. A street musician playing violin, for instance, and songs performed in a nightclub by a pair of singer-dancers who appear to be refugees from “Cabaret.”
So there’s irony in the fact that one of the film’s principal female characters was a professional singer before the Nazis sent her to a concentration camp. A Jew, she’d managed to hide for much of the war, but in 1944 she was found and arrested.
Nelly Lenz emerges from the horror of the camps with a bullet wound that disfigured her face. Her head, covered in bandages, stays that way through the film’s early scenes.
Nelly tells her surgeon that she wants to look exactly as she did before. But the operation returns her to only an approximation of her former self.
German actress Nina Hoss gives a revelatory performance as the fragile Nelly. In this speculative story about what happened after the war and the Holocaust, the physically and psychologically wounded Nelly tentatively re-enters life beyond the death camps.
“Phoenix” teams Hoss with German writer-director Christian Petzold for the fifth time. An intimate, masterfully told mystery, the film probably would please even the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.
Following reconstructive surgery, Nelly and her supportive friend, Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf), stay in a temporary apartment. Lene, also Jewish, is making plans for their move to Palestine. There, Lene says, the Jews can build a homeland where they can live in peace.
Nelly, on the other hand, holds onto the memory of her husband, Johnny. She searches for him by night in the city’s rubble. She finds Johnny, working as a busboy at Phoenix, a nightclub in Berlin’s American sector.
Ronald Zehrfeld co-stars as Johnny, giving another of the film’s subtly turned, eventually devastating performances.
Petzold’s script immediately reveals that Johnny is not a good guy. That doesn’t matter to Nelly. Even when the real Johnny stands right in front of her, being his naturally villainous self, she can’t see his evil.
To Nelly’s surprise, her husband doesn’t recognize her in the street or in the nightclub.
“Are you looking for work?” he asks when she returns to Phoenix a second time.
And so begins Nelly’s masquerade. She doesn’t tell Johnny that she is the wife he thought had died in a camp. Nelly’s motivation for not revealing her identity is the sizzling mystery. What does she hope to accomplish through this deceit? All the while, Johnny has his own plans.
Artfully crafted by Petzold and superbly acted by Hoss and Zehrfeld, the suspenseful, even disturbing “Phoenix,” easily takes its place among the best foreign films of the year.