I’ve been putting off watching Phoenix, despite it appearing on many Best of 2015 lists, due to the grim nature of its pedigree as a Holocaust survivor’s tale. Its recent appearance on Netflix’s streaming service made watching the film too convenient to avoid, though, so I finally bit the bullet. It turns out my apprehension was far from unfounded. Phoenix is a rather grim slowburner about an Auschwitz survivor trying to piece her life back together in a post-war Germany. It’s a frustrating film & not a fun watch by any means, but it is most certainly worth the emotional effort. By telling a very specific, limited-scope story about a handful of people trying to recreate a way of life that’s been lost forever, Phoenix captures an aspect of war’s toll that a lot of films often overlook. Instead of portraying the heroes & villains who fight it out on the battlefield, it’s much more concerned with the men & women who are left to sift through the rubble, both literal & metaphorical.
Despite loved ones’ insistence that she move to Palestine to help establish a Jewish state, a Holocaust survivor moves back to Germany to find her husband. Left horrifically scarred by concentration camp atrocities (and initially wearing a bandage that recalls the women of Goodnight Mommy & Eyes Without a Face), she undergoes plastic surgery that normalizes, but forever alters her appearance. She looks similar, but not quite identical, to her pre-war self, just as the state of her homeland has been forever transformed. With her entire family dead or missing, she tries to re-establish her relationship with a husband who treats her like a total stranger due to her change in appearance. Instead of telling him outright who she is, she allows him to slowly get the picture, perhaps in a bid to prove to herself that her pre-war self still exists in some way, that her identity didn’t perish forever in Auschwitz. The problem is that her husband has also been forever altered by the war & the romance she’s trying to recapture is no different from the bombed-out buildings & ripped to shreds Germany that serve as haunting reminders of their past.
Again, Phoenix is far from light entertainment. My own Best of 2015 list doesn’t include anything too comparable to the film in terms of emotional severity (except maybe The Diary of a Teenage Girl or Felt), but that’s more an indication of my personal inclination for over-the-top absurdity than it is of Phoenix’s quality. This is a really tight, surprisingly understated drama with one of the most satisfying final scenes in recent memory. Its use of the song “Speak Low”, which includes the haunting lyrics “Love is a spark lost in the dark too soon,” is especially commendable, as it’s incorporated several times throughout the film with great tonal & narrative consequence. If you’re looking for a solid, grim drama with an emotionally tender gut punch at its conclusion, this film is highly recommendable. It’s not the kind of experience I put myself through often, but I’m glad I put in the effort here.