A little remembered 1963 French detective novel by Hubert Monteilhet—Return from the Ashes—puts forth a fascinating scenario: a Jewish woman, presumed dead, returns to her hometown in France after being liberated from Dachau. Facially disfigured to the point of unrecognizability, she subtly reinserts herself into her husband’s life—a man with designs on her substantial estate. The fact that she is, in fact, his wife, remains a secret to him until the novel’s climax. The kindest reviews of the novel (and subsequent film) found it entirely implausible.
Luckily, it seems like this tantalizingly Hitchcockian setup was simply waiting for someone with the right bona fides to caress it into great art. Masterfully directed by Christian Petzold, with towering lead performances, 2014’s Phoenix is Monteilhet’s story done powerfully right.
Set in Berlin, Nelly is a facially-reconstructed and unrecognizable survivor so desperate to return to her prewar life, her prewar identity, that she finds her seedy, betraying husband, and pretends to be a stranger who merely looks like her actual self—all so that he can fool the insurance companies into handing over Nelly’s inheritance. The identity dynamic is dazzling.
A quiet noir thriller, Phoenix is a breathtaking existentialist flick with a deep, cutting sadness, and an ending that vies for one of the art form’s all-time bests.