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Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Hoss in Christian Petzold's "Phoenix. "

Amid near-universal acclaim, there have been a few dissenting voices who deem the film implausible and kitsch. This is to miss the point entirely. Phoenix is a parable about memory and the willed amnesia of a nation about traumatic events that it would rather forget. Its subject is the Holocaust. One might think, but of course. Yet Yimou Zhang’s Coming Home (2014) addresses in quite similar fashion the Chinese erasure of the Cultural Revolution, through the metaphor of a woman who refuses to recognize her husband, back after many years of exile.

The same conceit is used in Phoenix. We meet Nelly Lenz, a disfigured Holocaust survivor about to undergo plastic surgery in Switerland. The surgeon offers her a number of options but she insists on looking as she had, and he does his best, based on a photograph. A woman from the Refugee Agency would like to take her to Palestine but Nelly insists on returning to Berlin to find her husband Johnny (a piano player) and resume her old life. She discovers that he is a janitor at the club where he used to perform, the Phoenix. To her dismay, he does not recognize her. He sees enough of a resemblance, though, to hire her to impersonate his “dead” wife so that she might claim her fortune (as the sole surviving member of her family) and turn it over to him after receiving a small recompense. Each would then go his separate way. In order for this to work, he “teaches” her how to pass for herself, and, happy to relearn how to be, and hoping he will recognize her at last, she goes along. But all is not right as her distraught friend Lene tries to warn her. Nelly will need to face reality if she wishes to be more than a cypher.

The title Phoenix, of course points in that direction. Nina Hoss, who starred in several other Christian Pezold films—including Yella (2007) and Barbara (2012)—is magnificent as the bruised and dazed survivor with haunted eyes. Ronald Zehrfeld is suitably sleazy as Johnny, and Nina Kuzendorf very moving in the role of a fellow survivor who wants Nelly to start a new life in Palestine. Pezhold approaches the story of survival, guilt, and denial as film-noir, replete with dark shadows and jazz music. But to me, however atmospheric, it is the film’s ability to reflect on the intersection of history and memory that makes it so powerful. It asks how one can move on, and whether it is possible to move on if one blots out the past. This film stays with you. It should not be missed.

Watch the trailer for Phoenix

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