A Powerful, Psychological Thriller That Questions What It Means To Survive the Holocaust
Opening Scene: Nelly is being driven across the border by her friend, Lene, her head completely wrapped in bandages. When a guard refuses to let them pass through a checkpoint without her first removing the dressings, the camera cuts from her slowly unwinding the strips to the guard’s shamefaced reaction to the damage unveiled. Quickly ordering the other guards to let them go, they continue on their way to a doctor who is able to perform facial reconstruction surgery. Still alive because the Nazis had assumed she was dead from a gunshot wound to the face, Nelly is able to afford surgery through inheritance—she is the lone member of her family to survive the Holocaust.
There have been many powerful films created about the inhumanity perpetrated against the millions sent to concentration camps. Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix” (2014) focuses on what it means to survive and the psychological toll of redefining who you are after so much loss. Ruthlessly tense and with a can’t-look-away-from lead performance by Nina Hoss as Nelly Lenz (also star of Petzold’s movie, “Barbara”), the film gets its shock, not from trying to recreate the historical violence which can only ever pale against the real thing, but instead adheres to the thinking that sometimes it’s worse to leave the unimaginable to the imagination. From the very first scene, of not showing Nelly’s face, Petzold stays loyal to this idea and while his film may lack in blood and gore this is no way reflects a censorship or softening of the realities of genocide. If anything Nelly has her fair share of both physical and mental trauma to struggle with, as she continues to cling to the one hope that kept her going in the camps: that of reuniting with her German husband, Johnny.