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Film Review


On May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany surrendered and WW II in Europe ended. Tens of millions had died or were murdered, including at least 6 million Jews in the death camps. Most European cities were in ruins and there was widespread hunger throughout Europe. Many Holocaust survivors were forced to remain in displaced persons camps because there was no place for them to go, and few could return to their homes. Most of their homes either had been looted by their neighbors or had been destroyed. In many cases those communities were hostile to Jews even if Jewish homes still existed. A Polish town, Kielce, massacred 41 returning Jews and injured more. Many wanted to immigrate to Palestine, but the British, who controlled Palestine and were fearful of antagonizing Arab countries, would only permit a few Jews to enter. Some tried to try run the British blockade, such as the well known ship, Exodus. Most, like the Exodus, did not succeed and were forcibly returned to the camps. Visas to other countries were difficult to obtain, so that thousands of Holocaust survivors were forced to stay in the camps for many months, even years after the war ended. Israel became independent in 1948 and hundreds of thousands of survivors finally had a new home.

Against this bleak background, Christian Petzold, the noted German director ((Yella (2007), Jerichow (2008), Barbara (2012)), has adapted a French novel to tell the story of a Holocaust survivor, Nelly, who returns from a death camp to Berlin, where she had been married and a cabaret singer. In the camp, Nelly was shot in the face as the Nazi's tried to kill the remaining survivors. Grievously wounded, she is being cared for by a distant relative, Lene, an attorney who works for the Jewish Agency. Her face in bandages, she is taken to a surgeon, who tells her to select a face and he will do his best to make her look like that example. He tries to convince her to use the opportunity to alter her appearance so that she can start a new life. But Nelly doesn't want to alter her appearance; she wants to look as she did before the war. After the surgeries, looking at her face, she says "I no longer exist".

Nelly is obsessed with finding her husband, Johnny, who was the piano player at the cabaret. Johnny and their circle of friends were not Jewish. Johnny was spared the roundups, but divorced Nelly a few days before she was arrested. In fact, did Johnny betray Nelly to the Gestapo to save himself? Nelly does find Johnny, who is running a cabaret, Phoenix. But Johnny doesn't recognize Nelly, although he sees a similarity between her and his ex wife. The story unfolds, with twists and close observation of life in post War Germany. This is essentially a three character film: Nelly, Lene and Johnny. All are excellent but Nina Hoss playing Nelly, and Ronald Zehrfeld playing Johnny turn in absolutely brilliant performances. Petzold has used Hoss and Zehrfeld in a number of his films, and their performances are always very strong. Their roles in Barbara (2012) won a number of awards, as did the film itself. Here, her face is almost a character unto itself. At times she is like a wounded animal, but always with subtle expressions that say so much. The music, including Hoss herself singing Speak Low, a Kurt Weill song, is enthralling. But it is the ending that is truly unforgettable. It is as masterful and powerful as I have ever seen.

Like Petzold's other films, the cinematography is very accomplished, with much of the camerawork creating a distinctly noir atmosphere, but in muted colors. The night scenes could have come right out of a 1930's film noir. The depiction of a devastated Berlin is uncanny and the interior shots claustrophobic. The attitudes of non Jewish Germans immediately after the war are subtly exposed, and damning. Indeed, the film's title, Phoenix, surely is a metaphor for Germany after the war. All but its Jews; few of them rose from the ashes.

I loved this powerful complex film. Phoenix is extraordinary, a masterpiece, and likely to be the German submission for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards. Just opened at Opera Plaza, the Shattuck (Berkeley), the Rafael, and the Camera 3 (San Jose). Running time: 98 minutes.

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