In this quiet drama from Christian Petzold (Barbara), a concentration-camp survivor named Nelly (Nina Hoss) searches postwar Berlin for her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). But Nelly has a new face from reconstructive surgery, and she has been cautioned that Johnny might have betrayed her. Still, she finds Johnny, who doesn’t recognize her, but sees a resemblance to his late wife, and suggests he make her over as “Nelly,” in order to gain an inheritance. Nelly agrees, and the transformation and deception proceeds.
The simple drama builds slowly, as the film mixes history with gothic romance. (It sells its preposterous plot chiefly through the fine work of the lead actors.) And, of course, its central story also functions as a larger allegory for post-war Germany, as the nation processes guilt and trauma; the revelations of betrayals; how to bury a past to make a future; and issues of identity. “Phoenix” is the name of the nightclub where Nelly finds Johnny, but this is also about one woman’s rebirth: both the literal re-creation of her pre-war self, and emerging from the damage of the war.