Film: Phoenix

PhoenixChristian Petzold’s Phoenix (2014) is slow, deliberate, and energyless, but oddly effective for all that. In the aftermath of World War II, Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) returns to Berlin after being liberated from Auschwitz. Disfigured in the war, Nelly’s face is reconstructed, making her unrecognizable. This vastly complicates her primary goal: reconnecting with her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Their reunion leads to a thoroughly uncomfortable and unexpected new turn in their relationship.

The atmosphere and production values of Phoenix are first-rate, bringing the bleak post-war years of Germany vividly to life, and Hoss is mesmerizing as the traumatized, unreadable protagonist. But the film is also static, protracting the tragic scenario’s infrequent story beats; it felt like a short film dragged out to feature length. This made for tiresome viewing…and yet, in the end, the patient narrative strategy pays off in a rather elegant and powerful final moment. An unimpressive resolution might have left me regretting the watch, but Petzold nails it, rescuing the difficult build-up with an ending that is perfect. This one’s probably not for a wide audience, but it’s liable to resonate with certain afficionados of understated international cinema.

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