~Downstairs at the Savoy~
Rated PG-13;108 minutes
In English & German w/subtitles
A.A. Dowd, The Oninon A.V. Club (excerpted)
Glancing down into the rubble of a collapsed building, Nelly Lenz catches her own reflection in a shard of broken glass and is shocked to discover that she doesn’t recognize the stranger staring back at her. It’s 1945, and Nelly, a Jewish chanteuse emerging from the living hell of Auschwitz, has lost her career, her family, and now her very appearance to the Nazis. The surgeons warned that the disfigured visage they reconstructed—a word of multiple meanings in postwar Germany—might look as unfamiliar to her as the bombed-out Berlin she’s returned to. But there’s really no preparing someone for the shock of unraveling rolls of bandages, only to find someone new waiting underneath. “I don’t exist,” is about all this traumatized survivor can stammer on first glimpse.
That face, so foreign to the character wearing it, belongs in our reality to Nina Hoss, willowy star of the new new German cinema. Phoenix is the sixth film Hoss has made with director Christian Petzold—the others include Jerichow and Barbara—and it’s very much the culmination of their collaboration, rewarding the trust these two artists have placed in each other. Conflating personal and national identity in the aftermath of the war, this classically efficient psychodrama nods to movie history without slavishly imitating it. For what it sets out to accomplish, across a brisk 98 minutes, Petzold’s film feels perfectly judged. And it builds to an ending that’s just plain perfect.