Nelly Lenz survived Auschwitz, but was shot in the face sometime around the camp's liberation. With the rumble of war still echoing across the European landscape, Nelly returned to Berlin with a friend who had arranged for her to have reconstructive surgery.
In the hospital, a plastic surgeon asks Nelly whether she wants to pick a new face and by extension, a new identity. She insists that she wants to look exactly as she did before the war.
Obviously, any movie that begins like this -- as does the German movie Phoenix -- must invest every choice with symbolic meaning.
As an assimilated Jew prior to the war, does Nelly want to wipe the slate clean and start again? Will she cling to the past, even if it means denying how some of her German "friends" behaved during the war?
After her operation, Nelly -- played by Petzold regular Nina Hoss -- moves in with the friend (Nina Kunzendorf) who brought her to Berlin.
Kunzendorf's Lene suggests that the two leave Germany and move either to Haifa or Tel Aviv.
Nelly has another idea. She wants to find Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the German to whom she was married before the war. Nelly had been a club singer: Johnny played piano.
It doesn't take long for Nelly to locate Johnny, who (we're asked to believe) doesn't recognize her. True, Nelly doesn't look precisely the same as before her surgery, but you'd think Johnny, would be smart enough to catch on.
He doesn't. Instead, he thinks that this woman -- who reminds him of his wife -- might help him pull off a scam. He'll instruct her until she knows how to behave like the wife he presumes to be dead. He'll then use this imposter to collect the substantial inheritance to which Nelly's entitled. They'll split the money, he says.
That's a lot of story, but director Christian Petzold handles it with relative ease, perhaps assuming that in the post-war rubble of Berlin, it's entirely possible that Nelly would find Johnny working in a nightclub called The Phoenix, and that he wouldn't know who she is.
Buy into all of that, and you'll find a well-acted movie that showcases Hoss's work as a woman whose motives and understanding of her situation aren't fully formed until the movie's quietly powerful ending.
Hoss worked with Petzold on two previous movies ( Barbara and Yella), so it's no surprise that she skillfully convey's both Nelly's fragility and her determination.
Petzold devotes much of the movie to the ways in which Johnny tries to remake Nelly into the image of his wife without ever realizing that she actually is his wife.
At times, the movie almost seems as if it could have been a play, two characters mired in a game that raises deep questions about responsibility and guilt.
Petzold doesn't totally conquer the inherent unlikelihood of the movie's central conceit, but uses it to create a challenging portrait of post-war Germany.
He also benefits greatly from Hoss's performance as a woman who essentially has been eradicated from everything she knew -- and yet remains to look at the terrible aftermath.