Taking most of its plot from Hubert Monteilhet’s 1961 novel Return From the Ashes, the new movie by German filmmaker Christian Petzold feels like something out of that era. With its contrived plot and high-gloss possibilities, Phoenix would have been an ideal project for Lana Turner and director Douglas Sirk after Imitation of Life.
It begins at the end of World War II, with the re-emergence of the heavily-bandaged Nelly (the soulful Nina Hoss) from Auschwitz. She has been disfigured by a gunshot wound to the face; her friend Lene (Nina Kuzendorf) helps nurse her back to health, urging Nelly to claim her postwar reparations and join other surviving Jews in Palestine. Nelly, however, is fixated on her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, who really looks like an old-fashioned movie star), but he thinks she is dead and doesn’t recognize her with her new face. He has an idea, however—the rat. If this mystery woman will pretend to be Nelly, they can claim her inheritance and split the money.