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Unforgettable ‘Phoenix’ explores identity, memory

There are at least three moments in the stunning, unforgettable post-World War II film “Phoenix” that will, quite literally, take your breath away.

Two occur near the midpoint of director Christian Petzold’s story of a concentration camp survivor’s attempt to reconnect with the (non-Jewish) husband who believes she is dead, and to learn whether he betrayed her to the Nazis. Another is the film’s overwhelmingly emotional final scene.

When the latter moment occurs, the greatness of Petzold’s achievement is cemented. “Phoenix” is one of 2015’s finest films, and a gloriously complex conversation starter.

Its theme of the intersection of identity and memory brings to mind a number of very good films, from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” to Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In.” But the German-language “Phoenix” tackles the concept with originality, emotion, and verve.

Nina Hoss stars as Nelly, the German-Jewish survivor. We meet her in a series of strange, mysterious sequences. Her face, covered at first in bandages, is significantly damaged. She is accompanied by her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), but nevertheless seems alone in her thoughts.

Before the war Nelly was a singer at a Berlin nightclub called Phoenix – the name takes on new meaning as the film progresses – and lived with her dashing husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Was Johnny the reason Nelly was taken by the SS? Did he betray his wife?

These are the questions that haunt Nelly, and also haunt Lene. Now physically and emotionally damaged, Nelly is about to have plastic surgery. While she could, in a sense, start a new life, she tells her surgeon that she wants to look like the woman she was.

Once the surgery is complete, Nelly wants to seek out Johnny, despite Lene’s protests. She soon finds him at Phoenix, and after several thwarted encounters and the realization that he does not recognize her, something occurs that shocks her: Johnny whisks Nelly away and lays out a plan.

He wants her to pretend to be his late wife, so he can claim her inheritance. What follows is a peculiar game in which Johnny attempts to teach “Nelly” how to talk, dress, and act like the wife he believes is gone. The process culminates in a stunning series of events.

While much of the success of “Phoenix” is from the script (co-written by Petzold and the late Harun Farocki, and based on a novel by Hubert Monteilhet), the trio of lead actors all give award-worthy performances.

As Lene, Kunzendorf takes a character that could have been one-note – the friend who knows best, and has an idea for your future – and infuses her with complexity. Lene watches helplessly as Nelly tracks down Johnny and agrees to his scheme. Watch Kunzendorf closely in these casually devastating scenes, and see an actor who has mastered the art of facial expression.

And, of course, there are Hoss and Zehrfeld. The duo starred in Petzold’s previous effort, “Barbara,” and were quite impressive as physicians in early-1980s East Germany.

In “Phoenix,” they go even farther with equally difficult roles. Hoss must, in a sense, give two separate performances, as Nelly when she is with Lene, and “Nelly” during her encounters with Johnny. She creates an individual who is both heartbreakingly hurt yet stunningly strong-willed.

Zehrfeld, meanwhile, has the task of demonstrating the cold, calculated nature that has kept Johnny alive, but also needs to evidence a certain charm that still envelopes Nelly.

For Hoss, Zehrfeld and Kunzendorf, then, “Phoenix” is a triumph. And for director Petzold, it is a masterpiece, one that elevates him to the upper echelon of international filmmaking.

When was the last time a film left you breathless? “Phoenix” will, and that makes it a must-see.

Phoenix

4 stars

Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf

Director: Christian Petzold

Running Time: 98 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements and brief suggestive material.

The Lowdown: After undergoing reconstructive surgery, a concentration camp survivor tries to learn if her husband betrayed her to the Nazis. (In German with English subtitles.)

Showing at: North Park Theatre and Dipson Eastern Hills.

Story topics: / / /

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