(director: Christian Petzold; screenwriters: Harun Farocki/based on the novel “Le Retour des Cendres” by Hubert Monteilhet; cinematographer: Hans Fromm; editor: Bettina Böhler; music: Stefan Will; cast: Nina Hoss (Nelly Lenz), Ronald Zehrfeld (Johnny Lenz), Nina Kunzendorf (Lene Winter); Runtime: 94; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Florian Koerner von Gustorf/ Michael Weber; PALGood! Movies; 2014-Germany-in German with English-my version was dubbed in English subtitles)

A stunning and painful German concentration camp survivor drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A stunning and painful German concentration camp survivor drama that’s sensitively directed by Christian Petzold(“Yella”/”Ghosts”/”Jerichow”), who is associated with the Berlin School. It’s based on the French novel “Le Retour des Cendres” by Hubert Monteilhet. Writers Petzold and Harun Farocki finely adapt it to the screen with the power of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, only with added-on moralistic conundrums, and as an exhausting postwar parable of the attempt to overcome personal trauma.

During the final days of the war, Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a Jewish Auschwitz camp survivor, from a wealthy Berlin family, is left disfigured after she is shot in the face and left for dead by the Nazis. Returning in the summer of 1945 to occupied Berlin, she reunites with her Jewish friend, a haunted survivor of the Holocaust, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf). She encourages Nelly to prepare for a new life in Israel, as both women are anxious about living in Germany. Nelly’s entire family perished, which adds to her sorrows. To get back on her feet, Nelly uses her inheritance money to get facial reconstruction surgery. Now almost unrecognizable, the distraught woman, a night-club singer, searches ravaged postwar Berlin for the husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), a low-life piano player who probably betrayed her to the Gestapo. When she meets Johnny, an unsympathetic survivalist, working in a night-club in the American sector,, bussing tables, he fails to recognize her but notices she has similarities to his dead wife. Johnny schemes to use those traits to collect his dead wife’s inheritance by having the stranger, called Esther, pretend to be Nelly. He thereby believes they can together work this scam and split the loot. The psychologically damaged Nelly goes along with his scheme because she wants to be certain Johnny betrayed her and for psychological reasons that perhaps only a camp survivor might understand.

The far-fetched plot (which seems implausible) works as an emotionally-charged film noir, and provides us with a numbing and unfulfilling conclusion.It’s a provocative, well-crafted and well-acted film, that speaks the universal language of suffering and fitfully tries to find answers about such things as malevolent ignorance.

The title is derived from the Berlin night-club called Phoenix, where Nelly searches for and finds her slimey husband and will learn of his betrayal.