What is identity? Is it who we are or who others think we are? A scenario capable of stripping people of their selfhood greater than the Holocaust is hard to imagine, and German filmmaker Christian Petzold puts his protagonist Nelly, played with great subtlety by Nina Hoss, in that predicament in Phoenix (trailer). A Jewish former cabaret singer, she’s somehow survived the concentration camp and is determined to return to Berlin to find her husband Johnny among the piled-up post-war debris and psychological ruin. Her stalwart friend Lene doesn’t trust Johnny, but Nelly won’t be deterred.
She was horribly disfigured by her concentration camp experience and, aided by Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), undergoes extensive reconstructive surgery, pleading for the Swiss doctor to return her face to exactly the way it looked before, though he warns her that may be impossible. In Berlin, still bearing the bruises of her extensive plastic surgery, she re-encounters Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). His belief that Nelly is dead is so strong, he ignores signs that this woman, who calls herself “Esther” (“There aren’t too many Esthers left,” he says), and his wife are one and the same.
In her job, Lene finds people among the dislocated and helps them get them to Palestine. She plans for them both to go there, a future she believes in whole-heartedly, but which interests Nelly not at all. The endless poring over the lists of the murdered takes its toll, and Lene finally says she feels more kinship “with our dead than with the living.”
Johnny wants Nelly to masquerade as his wife to gain the fortune she’s inherited after the deaths of her entire family. This leaves her with the mind-bending quandary of pretending to be someone pretending to be who she really is. In truth, neither of them can “see” the other.
Based on a somewhat simplified version of the French novel Return from the Ashes, it’s a story about the crumbling of trust and how illusions—Nelly’s and Johnny’s equally—blind us to reality. A powerful film whose conclusion is a shattering confrontation with the truth. Excellent performances by Hoss, Zehrfeld, and Kunzendorf. Kurt Weill’s haunting “Speak Low” is heard throughout in different versions.
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating an unequivocal 99%! Viewers 81%.