Review: ‘Phoenix’


Relatively slow-moving and sparse in plot points, “Phoenix” is thick with the kind of tension that will test your patience, culminating in a way that risks leaving some viewers underwhelmed in the hopes that most will be satisfied.

The film begins with its main character’s face mysteriously wrapped in bandages as she is driven across the border from Switzerland to Germany. It is soon revealed that this woman, Nelly, is returning to her homeland after being rescued from Auschwitz at the end of World War II, with facial reconstruction surgery leaving her completely unrecognizable.

Returning home, Nelly’s focus is to find her husband Johnny, despite having been warned by Lene, Nelly’s caretaker, that Johnny betrayed Nelly by turning her in to the S.S. But Nelly is convinced otherwise, and she remains hopeful even though Johnny doesn’t recognize her when they meet again. As Nelly struggles with the perceived loss of her own identity, she becomes immersed in a scheme that requires her to pose as her former self.

Phoenix is a stripped-down and re-imagined version of the 1961 French novel, “Les Retour des cendres,” but the film plays as if it was adapted from an identity-bending short story. The writers, Christian Petzold and Harun Farocki, took liberties such as moving the setting from France to Germany, changing characters’ names and removing ancillary plots in order to service the symbolic representation of the conflict between opposing ideals in the wake of the holocaust.

Those who refuse to suspend belief for the sake of appreciating this symbolism may criticize some of the film’s more incredible elements. But the same can be said for many great works of allegorical fiction. “The Metamorphosis” is lauded for Kafka’s criticism of capitalist society despite its infeasible absurdity, and British readers’ initial reaction to the implausibility of “Moby Dick” now seem like nitpicking considering the novel’s lasting impact. Surely, viewers can overlook the unrealistic notion that Nelly’s facial reconstruction left her utterly unrecognizable or that her former husband recognizes her enough to consider her a passable imposter, but not enough to realize her true identity.

Aside from the symbolism, “Phoenix” employs a unique interpretation of a common dramatic trope.

Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s most well-known contribution to modern storytelling is a principle that has come to be known as “Chekhov’s gun.” This principle maintains that no plot device should be introduced unless it is going to be utilized. In other words, when it comes to flashing a gun in a movie or play…you must either use it or remove it. The first modern example of this that comes to mind is Walter White’s purchase of a machine gun in the final season premiere of Breaking Bad. Of course, not all examples of this trope’s use are quite that literal.

“Phoenix” adheres to this principle, but in an unpredictable way. The lingering threat of “the gun” serves the dual purpose of adding suspense to the film’s sparse plot and diverting the audience’s attention, which maximizes the impact of its eventual use.

It’s easy to see why “Phoenix” is a critical darling. Clever writing, superbly intimate acting performances, hyper-conscious cinematography and set design add a tremendous amount of aesthetic appeal to a film that uses its characters to portray mindsets of the remaining citizens of a country devastated by mass genocide and war.

Plus, if you’re considering going to the Bijou for the first time and you want the prototypical “art-house theater” experience, this film will not let you down.