We begin at night, on the road. A car rattles to a halt as it crosses a US army patrol, the soldiers demanding to see inside. Sprawled across the seats is a figure, Nelly (Nina Hoss), whose face is hidden, covered in a mask of bandages soaked with blood.
This is Germany, 1945, and the war is over. Nelly is a Jewish concentration camp survivor who has been badly disfigured by a gunshot wound, and she is being driven by her friend to Berlin, her home, where she will be given reconstructive surgery. She cowers before the soldiers, but they let her pass. As the car drives off into darkness, the image fades to an unfussy title card, accompanied by strains of mellow jazz.
It’s a masterfully engaging opening, which sets us up with a distinct impression of the film we’re about to see. Phoenix’s biggest flaw is that it ends up going, after a certain point, in quite a different direction with the material, leaving much of this initial promise untapped.
Post-surgery, Nelly sets about wandering the streets of Berlin late at night, trying to track down her husband, Johnny, the memory of whom sustained her whilst in the camps. When she finally comes face to face with him at the titular Phoenix club, Johnny doesn’t rec- ognise her. He does however see something of a resemblance, and sets in motion a plan to have this woman pose as his wife, so she can publicly ‘return’ from the camps, and together they can collect and split her family’s inheritance.
At this point the film becomes quite a different beast. Now it becomes a two-person psychological drama, almost a chamber piece, as Johnny attempts to fashion Nelly into the woman he knew. This premise is promising, to be sure, but the best these scenes can do is to remind us of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (the influence of which is fairly explicit) – they have neither the insidious creepiness nor the uneasy tension of the latter, and so they fail to truly fly.
That said, this side of Phoenix is still interesting. Darkness emerges not from the plot, but from the subtext – the film is rife with feelings of guilt, betrayal and self-delusion (Nelly’s friend is certain that Johnny must have turned her in before she was caught) – it is the headspace of post-WWII Germany made manifest. Nelly desperately wants to reveal her identity to her husband, but perhaps she knows deep down that he no longer loves her (if he ever did). So she continues to lie to herself – and to him – because if she does not, then she is lost.
Still, one feels that Phoenix was more at home under its early period noir guise. Nelly was a club singer before the war, and the early scenes hint towards a persistent shadowy jazz-infused soundtrack. Had the film held to this music and its atmosphere, it would have added a lot of gravitas to an ending which wasn’t as poignant as it should have been, but alas it went up in smoke, only being used if and when convenient.
As for the Phoenix club itself, this feels like the biggest waste of all. The club is the film’s most potent distillation of post-war attitude, a seedy, sultry den glowing red, where men and women come to immerse themselves in the sound and sensation of pre-war Berlin, and forget their present.
It’s no coincidence that Nelly and Johnny meet outside the club, neither one of them able to let go of their lives before the war, but the film doesn’t revisit the Phoenix club after this point, much to its detriment. Phoenix sucks us in with its appealingly mellow noir vibes, but fails to capitalise on its early promise