1 December 2015 | 3:31 pm | Guy Davis

"Phoenix paints a vivid portrait of human frailty in a shellshocked environment."

Phoenix hinges on a pretty major contrivance, but it's not the first good movie to do so and not the first good movie to succeed despite a suspension of disbelief on the viewer's part. As a matter of fact, that contrivance makes solid thematic sense in the overall scheme of things, which goes to show that director and co-screenwriter Christian Petzold is a fairly clever individual and that Phoenix is a movie that resonates on multiple levels.

WWII has ended, and Nelly (Nina Hoss), a German Jew who survived the horrors of Auschwitz but emerged with her face disfigured, has returned to Berlin to undergo reconstructive surgery. Given the opportunity to have any appearance she wants, she instead chooses to have her own face returned to her… but the surgery can only restore her original look so much.

There's another reason for Nelly's return to Berlin: she is searching for Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the husband from whom she was separated by the war. Even though there is every chance Johnny betrayed her to the Nazis, she refuses to believe it and seeks only a reunion with the man she loves.

When she finds him, Johnny does not recognise her as Nelly. But he does see someone who looks enough like Nelly for him to dream up a scam that will see the pair of them swindle an inheritance from what remains of Nelly's family. Nelly, only wanting to be with Johnny, plays along with the charade under the new identity of Esther.

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Both Nelly and Johnny are deluding themselves, unwilling or unable to face reality until it is literally staring them in the face, and Phoenix paints a vivid portrait of human frailty in a shellshocked environment.

In doing so, however, Petzold and his cast, especially the remarkable Hoss, show welcome restraint and subtlety, giving the melodramatic and noir-ish aspects of the story a grounding in a specific time and place and a universal set of emotional actions and reactions, culminating in a tremendously satisfying denouement.