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Phoenix

It’s difficult to find a new angle on the Holocaust.  Seems like every year there’s a new movie, or three, that features the Holocaust in some way. I think we return to the same well because we are fascinated by the depths of human depravity.  And yet we keep returning to Germany, 1942, as if it’s the only event of its kind, ignoring or forgetting about events like the Sikh holocaust of 1762, the Ukrainian holocaust of 1932, Cambodian genocide, Armenian genocide in 1915, and many others.  Examples of human depravity on a mass scale are, sadly, not hard to find throughout history, and sometimes it feels to me like our cinematic focus on this one particular example dehumanizes and disrespects the memories of those who were slaughtered in the others.

And yet, “Phoenix” does manage to find a fresh angle, a new patch of ground to explore, and perhaps one that is more universal that some of the others.  Set just after the liberation of Germany by the allies, Nina Hoss plays a woman who miraculously survived the concentration camps, despite being shot in the face and left for dead by the Nazis. Reconstructive surgery on her face is successful, but she is upset, because she doesn’t quite look like herself.  She is the same, but different.  You can see the metaphorical value of that.

Nina Kunzendorf is her friend and caretaker, and she believes that hoss was betrayed and handed over to the Nazis by her husband (Ronald Zehrfeld, who looks a lot like Russel Crowe.) Kunzendorf wants to leave for Palestine and start a new life there, but hoss can’t quite believe that her husband would betray, so she starts looking for him.

When she finds him, he doesn’t recognize her.  He thinks his wife is dead, but he does see a woman who resembles his wife – only her voice, her gait, her mannerisms are all different (death camps will do that to you.) With a nod to “Vertigo,” he convinces her to play the role of his wife — with his coaching – so that they can collect her sizable inheritance.

Now, granted, that’s a bit contrived. It suffers from While You Were Sleeping syndrome, where characters can only keep on believing what they believe if nobody ever says the wrong, and often the most obvious, easy thing to say. But man, if you are going to use a hokey contrivance in a movie, this is the way to use it.  It sets up a fascinating exploration of memory and identity, of guilt and complacency.  Perhaps most of all, it makes “Phoenix” an examination of past and present.  You can never go back and make things right; what has happened has happened, and trying to recreate what was is a fool’s errand.

In that way, this film feels a bit more universal than other Holocaust films have.  Art is about telling the truth, and surely every survivor of every trauma – as massive and unimaginable as the Armenian genocide or as small and personal as a sudden and surprising death of a loved one – can identify with what Hoss is feeling and struggling her way through.  The world has shifted on its axis; there is no going back to the way things were. For some, there may be no way forward, either.

 

 

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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