In Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, Nelly Lenz (the magnificent Nina Hoss) is released from Auschwitz in the care of her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf). Nelly’s head is completely bandaged as the result of gunshot wounds. In Berlin, a plastic surgeon offers her a new face—he can make her look like a movie star—but she insists that he reconstruct her features as much as possible to resemble her old self.
Lene offers Nelly a chance to begin a new life in Israel with their post-war reparation payments. But Nelly, who only survived the camp by fixating on her reunion with her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), is not ready for renewal.
Lene works in a records office, registering the names of people exterminated by Nazis. While Nelly was incarcerated, without news of the outside world, Lene learned the fate of all their friends—who perished and who collaborated. She knows that Johnny was imprisoned and released days before Nelly was caught. One day she sees him slip into the stacks, only to be chased by a worker. Leafing through the file he has dropped in haste, Lene further discovers that, before Nelly’s arrest, Johnny obtained a divorce. She warns Nelly that Johnny is a traitor, but to spare her friend, who is already severely traumatized, she does not tell all she knows.
Before her arrest, Nelly sang and Johnny played piano in nightclubs. Now she prowls the nocturnal streets of a demolished Berlin with a little revolver, a gift from Lene, in her handbag. She finds Johnny soon enough, busing tables in a café. He does not recognize his glamorous former wife in this emaciated, grey-haired, bruised and broken creature. Yet he can see enough of a resemblance to suggest that they scheme together to claim Nelly’s reparation money.
Perhaps Johnny loved Nelly, and betrayed her only when faced with his own destruction. Attractive, pragmatic, he has made his compromise and lived. He can hardly expect or wish ever to see Nelly again.
In order to be close to him, Nelly agrees to the scheme. Calling herself Esther, she allows him to refashion her as a dark-haired beauty with a confident walk. He does not ask her to attempt to sing.
To test her disguise, Johnny arranges a gathering in a beer garden with old acquaintances. She arrives at the assignment with something besides a gun in her handbag: the divorce papers, left to her by Lene, who has committed suicide.
The old acquaintances accept her as Nelly. Stunned at their willingness to believe that survivors leave Auschwitz wearing lipstick and high heels, and possibly wondering what role these people played during the war, she barely speaks. When they have finished their welcoming speeches, she suggests that she and Johnny perform one of their old numbers, Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low.” No doubt wondering what Esther can be thinking, but unwilling to challenge her in public, he sits down at the beer garden piano and begins to play.
Esther’s voice, at first a whisper, gains resonance as she sings. Astonished, Johnny stops playing and looks up, seeing for the first time what she has, literally, up her sleeve: a camp serial number.
Director Petzold wrote the screenplay of Phoenix with his mentor, German media artist Harun Farocki, who was born during the war in a part of Czechoslovakia annexed by the Third Reich. Before his death in 2014, Farocki worked with Petzold on five films, including 2012’s Barbara, also starring Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld.