“I no longer exist”
The Holocaust left thousands of survivors stripped of identity—branded by a number as though they weren’t worthy of the name given at birth. To exit such horror was to enter a new world forever changed for them as well as those lucky enough to have missed the nightmare first-hand. Pity, guilt, sorrow, and anger mixed as victims, oppressors, heroes, and bystanders who refused to acknowledge the truth reunited in a post-War Earth. Nations tried to make things better by pooling together the wealth of those who died, building a sanctuary for the Jewish people in Palestine, but we all know the suffering that decision wrought. Even if it were perfect, however, it could never bring them back to the way things were. It could never give Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) back her stolen sense of self.
She becomes a metaphor for an entire race in Christian Petzold‘s adaptation (with help from Harun Farocki) of Hubert Monteilhet‘s Le Retour des cendres. Not only has she surfaced from Auschwitz mentally altered, she’s physically scarred as well. Nelly’s head is wrapped up like the Invisible Man upon Phoenix‘s opening, bloodied and scared in the passenger side of friend Lene Winter’s (Nina Kunzendorf) car. The first step towards recovery is to get a new face; one her doctor says will provide a fresh start. Nelly isn’t interested in that, though. She wants to look like she had before. Because no matter how well surgery goes or how beautiful Lene exclaims she is, the woman peering back from the mirror wouldn’t be she. And this realization’s never more heartbreaking than reuniting with a husband gazing back at a stranger.
All Nelly has to do is tell him, right? Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) may find it difficult to believe initially, but his wife was back from the dead and they can live happily ever after. Or at least that’s where another version of this tale may have gone. Petzold’s drama is more complicated in its depiction of love and betrayal. Lene knows why things aren’t so simple, but her attempts to steer Nelly away from Berlin to Tel Aviv are too vaguely mysterious and incomplete to work. The truth would completely wreck her friend so she sprinkles seeds of doubt instead. Details about Johnny’s arrest occurring two days before Nelly’s and his freedom hours after her capture reveal all we need to know about his intentions. Nelly, however, can’t let go of the hope her marriage was left intact.
The film becomes a series of practice sessions between she and Johnny—his educating her about her own life and Nelly optimistically believing every new success at “imitation” will prove it’s been her all along. You cannot imagine the sense of sadness this relationship breeds onscreen due to Hoss’ performance. To see her smile as she thinks, “This is the moment” while he remains stock-still and silent in the company of a ghost before pushing her away is devastating. Even more so than that, however, is the knowledge we have for why his mind will never consciously see the woman in front of him as his wife. The secret he holds to make that miracle impossible is the worst revelation of all. To be so sure Nelly has died is to be exactly what Lene warns he is.
Signs point to the truth so early that we as viewers begin to anticipate the inevitable fallout, wondering whether there will be forgiveness or revenge. But both those things are too broad of concepts for the raw emotions experienced at this time. Having to acknowledge that friends were the enemy or loved ones were suddenly dead isn’t something to be quickly processed. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to look at old photos with as many heads circled as Nazi conspirators as there were crosses marking people as deceased. To be alive and morally righteous is to be a member of the minority. And while finding out at the conclusion of the chaos when those guilty have already been removed is one thing, seeing the person you love accused forces a questioning of his/her intentions.
Unfortunately for Nelly, this is exactly what she must do even if only in the recesses of her brain. So we watch as she embraces the ruse in order to be close to her husband, taking each setback of his complete resistance to her identity in stride. I loved the moments when she subtly attempts to throw the truth in his face by re-enacting history she shouldn’t know about. But he only grows impatient and angry, the pain of reliving memories he has obviously pushed away and reconciled his emotions towards perpetually etched on Zehrfeld’s face when his half smile, half tearful breakdown of an expression hasn’t broken through erected walls. We watch as they move closer and closer to the day of her “return,” to “dupe friends she is alive” so he can acquire her inheritance.
I was constantly growing anxious that the truth had as yet to be discovered. Hollywood conditioning me so well to think the aftermath is what we’ve come to witness makes it hard to fathom the lead-up could be so intricately satisfying as proved here. To end Phoenix at the moment of realization is bold and perfect if only to make good on the title alluding to Nelly’s rebirth being complete. It’s an emotionally rousing sequence that will leave you as stunned in silence as those onscreen—a confident maneuver from a once delicate and broken shell who has found the strength to take back who she was in her heart beyond those around her who simply carried on with their lives while she suffered. It’s in that moment that Nelly Lenz officially comes back from the grave.
 Nina Kunzendorf (Lene) and Nina Hoss (Nelly) in Christian Petzold’s PHOENIX. Courtesy of Schramm Film. A Sundance Selects Release.
 Ronald Zehrfeld (Johnny) and Nina Hoss (Nelly) in Christian Petzold’s PHOENIX. Courtesy of Schramm Film. A Sundance Selects Release.
 Nina Hoss (Nelly) and Ronald Zehrfeld (Johnny) in Christian Petzold’s PHOENIX. Courtesy of Schramm Film. A Sundance Selects Release.