A rapturous noir thriller from German director Christian Petzold, Phoenix is ardent, urgent, and smoldering, so beautifully made that it comes close to perfect. The script is by Petzold and Harun Farocki, adapted from French crime writer Hubert Monteilhet's 1963 novel Return From the Ashes (also the source material for a 1965 film starring Maximilian Schell and Samantha Eggar). It's also, incidentally, a riff on Vertigo: The extraordinary Nina Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, a woman who has survived Auschwitz but whose face has been disfigured. Nelly is brought to Berlin so her face can be reconstructed by a plastic surgeon, though "reimagined" would be a better word. Nelly pleads with the surgeon to make her look as she did before. He does his best, though the results fall far short of her expectations.
With her new face, and feeling like a stranger to everyone, including herself, Nelly drifts through half-demolished postwar Berlin, looking for her lost husband, Johnny -- in their former lives, she was a singer, he a piano player. But Johnny -- played by Ronald Zehrfeld -- doesn't recognize her, though he is struck by her resemblance to the wife he has presumed dead. Nelly, incidentally, is the heir to a sizable estate; Johnny asks her to impersonate his "late" wife -- in other words, herself -- so he can procure the money.
Talk about a metaphor for women who give too much. But Phoenix doesn't need to trade in metaphors to have meaning: Petzold is content to explore the possibilities of traditional melodrama, and he turns up vast emotional riches.