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'Phoenix' review: A Hitchcockian tale of survival

Nina Kunzendorf (Lene) and Nina Hoss (Nelly) in

Nina Kunzendorf (Lene) and Nina Hoss (Nelly) in Christian Petzold's "Phoenix." Credit: Christian Schulz

Christian Petzold's stunning "Phoenix" boasts a story line worthy of Hitchcock: A man encounters a woman who reminds him of one he lost. He remakes the new woman in the image of the missing one. Identities meld, memories get twisted and, eventually, one woman becomes the other.

But where the narrative diverts wildly from the "Vertigo" model is that the first woman not only is the second woman, she's the wife of her re-creator.

Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), shot through the face and left for dead in Auschwitz, undergoes reconstructive surgery that leaves her looking not quite like her old self, but close enough that her craven husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), thinks he can use her to claim her money and property. Why not? Her family thinks she's dead. So does Johnny.

The psychologically complex, emotionally ticklish "Phoenix" reunites Petzold with Hoss and Zehrfeld, who starred in his equally devastating "Barbara" of 2012. That was a film that certainly established Hoss as a world-class actress, and one of the few who could handle the resurrection, transformation and betrayal of a woman like Nelly, who watches as the man she loves not only uses her for financial gain, but fails to even recognize her.

Hoss' Nelly is a shattered bird, who has lived through things that have left her altered forever. But the point of her relationship with Johnny is that it shouldn't matter: She would know him anywhere, at any time, under any circumstances, with any face, or walking -- as Nelly sometimes does -- like a beaten dog. But Johnny is a different kind of animal, and the revelations about their history make even more disturbing and poignant an enigmatic movie that's a tour de force of acting, direction and intellectual provocation.

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