by Mark Ahn
Longtime Petzold collaborator Nina Hoss plays Nelly, who we meet as she’s being transported by her friend, Lene, from a concentration camp to Berlin for treatment. Nelly’s face has been severely damaged from her imprisonment, and she requires immediate reconstructive surgery, which leaves her appearance radically altered.
Hoss plays Nelly with great depth and nuance, bringing the physically and emotionally shattered prisoner alive with a shuffling, uneasy physicality, punctuated by her large, startled eyes. As Nelly steadies herself into her new face and her new life, her back is a little straighter, her eyes clearer, and her words are more sure. The interplay between her and Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) are my favorite parts in the movie, as multiple levels of meaning appear in their conversations: Nelly leaving breadcrumbs for Johnny to follow, Johnny hinting at something like recognition but stopping short of conceding anything. The characters’ interactions grow more tense, but they are not completely sure why the tension grows, which makes it compelling to watch.
The camera moves with a deliberate pace, never calling attention to itself, but subtly, gracefully setting up the frame, which is draped with the spare color palette of war torn Germany. Although clearly a story set in the real world, Petzold adds some flourishes with his lighting and his placement of objects, hinting at the heightened reality that exists between the truth and the lie in which Nelly finds herself.
Phoenix opened in 2014 on festival circuit and in its native Germany; it opened in July 2015 in the U.S and is still in limited release.