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Strong leads highlight 'Phoenix,' a sad tale of post-war reconciliation
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Ronald Zehrfeld (Johnny) and Nina Hoss (Nelly) in Christian Petzolds Phoenix. - photo by Josh Terry
Phoenix has a plot that hangs on the edge of believability but injects enough tension at the right moments to keep the film from tripping over itself.

The film follows a Holocaust survivor named Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) as she transitions into her post-war life. As we meet her, she is just about to undergo reconstructive surgery to repair the damage of a gunshot wound to the face.

Once the bandages come off, Nelly is unrecognizable. The rest of her family was killed, and as a result she commands a sizable inheritance. Her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a fellow Jew, has been helping to nurse her back and track down the records of her family. She has secured a place to stay in Tel Aviv and wants Nelly to come with her and start a new life.

But rather than start over in what will soon be Israel, Nelly is determined to track down her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), a musician who used to accompany her vocal performances back in better times. Lene isnt interested in helping with the search. She insists that Johnny was responsible for betraying Nelly to the concentration camps.

When Nelly locates Johnny, he doesnt recognize her. But she bears enough of a resemblance to him to hatch a plan. With a little training, and for a generous payoff, she will pose as his wife in order to collect Nellys inheritance. Sadly, Nelly allows herself to go along with the plan.

At its heart, Phoenix is a metaphor for the post-war relationship between German Jews and their homeland. Lene is bitter and anxious to move on from the horrors of the past. But Nelly carries such blind love for her husband that, even in spite of his duplicitous scheme, she tries to convince herself that he still loves her.

As Nellys face evolves through the film, from a huddled, bandaged figure, to a timid and wounded woman wearing the bruises of her operation, then finally to a fashionable, makeup-wearing facsimile of her former life, she reflects the reality of her people. The wounds may heal, but things will never be the same.

Hoss gives a powerful performance, painting Nellys character with sad delicacy. She emotes such stunned pain that you can forgive her irrational actions. Shes a perfect fit for the rubble of Berlin that surrounds her, and director Christian Petzold shoots her in moody shadow that makes her eventual emergence that much more powerful.

Zehrfeld has a challenge as Johnny to portray a man so detached that he cant pick up the truths that are right in front of his face. There are plenty of times the plot of Phoenix threatens to derail because you just cant buy the fact that Johnny doesnt recognize his own wife. But the third act payoff will make you glad you stayed on the tracks.

That being said, Phoenix can be a difficult movie to watch. As a Holocaust film, it strays far from the graphic horror of well-known period pieces such as Schindlers List. But the pain of watching Nelly try to reconcile the irreconcilable can be heartbreaking in its own way.

Phoenix is rated PG-13 for some thematic and suggestive material. It is performed mostly in German, with English subtitles.