The film follows Nelly Lenz, a Holocaust survivor and former cabaret singer, who returns to Berlin after undergoing facial reconstruction surgery for damage caused by a bullet wound. Following the end of World War II and the liberation of the concentration camps, Nelly returns to Germany with her friend Lene. Here, Lene takes Nelly to a reconstructive plastic surgeon. Although Nelly tells the surgeon that she would like to look exactly as she used to, he is unable to recreate her old face completely and Nelly is disappointed with the final result.
Lene finds an apartment for her and Nelly. Since Nelly's family members all died during the war, Nelly has inherited a considerable amount of money. Lene suggests to Nelly that she collect the money and that the two of them travel to Palestine. She believes they will be safe there and can help with the creation of an independent Jewish state.
Although Lene warns Nelly that her husband Johnny may have been the one to betray her to the Nazis, Nelly denies this possibility. She leaves the apartment at night to find him. She finds Johnny working in a nightclub called Phoenix. Johnny fails to recognize her, yet says later that she bears an uncanny resemblance to his late wife, Nelly. In order to obtain his wife's inheritance, he asks Nelly to impersonate his wife.
Johnny slowly transforms Nelly into an image and performer of her previous self before her arrest. Nelly goes along with Johnny's plan and keeps her true identity concealed, telling Johnny that her name is Esther. Although Lene continues to warn Nelly that Johnny was possibly complicit in her arrest, Nelly maintains a romantic view of the relationship. As Esther, she questions Johnny about his feelings for his wife and his behaviour at the time of her arrest. Johnny avoids answering most of Nelly's questions, wanting her to concentrate on learning to impersonate his wife. Johnny tells Nelly that he plans to stage her "return" from the camps within the week, and invites several of the couple's old friends to meet her with him at the train station.
After spending several days with Johnny, Nelly returns to the apartment she shares with Lene. Here, the landlady informs her that Lene has killed herself, leaving behind a note for Nelly. In this note, Lene admits to Nelly that she knows that Johnny divorced Nelly the day before her arrest. She includes a copy of the divorce decree, which forces Nelly to accept Johnny's betrayal.
Nelly keeps this knowledge a secret, meeting Johnny and their old friends at the train station as planned. Later, at the home of one of the friends, Nelly invites the group to listen to her sing, accompanied by Johnny on piano. As Nelly sings, Johnny recognizes her voice and sees the number tattooed on her arm when she was a prisoner in the concentration camps. He stops playing the piano, recognizing Nelly as she finishes the song and walks away.Nina Hoss as Nelly Lenz
Ronald Zehrfeld as Johannes "Johnny" Lenz
Nina Kunzendorf as Lene Winter
Michael Maertens as Arzt
Imogen Kogge as Elisabeth
The film's screenplay is loosely based on Hubert Monteilhet's 1961 French detective novel Le Retour des cendres (English: The Return from the Ashes), which set the story in France. The novel was adapted into the 1965 J. Lee Thompson film Return from the Ashes.
In his adaptation, Christian Petzold decided to change the setting to Berlin shortly after the German surrender at the end of World War II. The screenplay was co-written by Petzold and the artist Harun Farocki. It was the last screenplay of Farocki's career.
In the process, the scenarists changed the characters' names and occupations. They eliminated the book's narrative device, in which the survivor's daughter Fabienne discovers the story of her mother's and stepfather/lover's relationship through journal entries written by her mother. She is revealed to have died under suspicious circumstances. They also dropped a secondary plot in which Fabienne has developed a relationship with her stepfather, and thus challenges her mother for his affection when identities are ambiguous.
The film features the Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash song "Speak Low" (1943), and Cole Porter's "Night and Day".
Phoenix was released on Blu-ray and DVD in Germany by Indigo on 27 March 2015.
In the United Kingdom, the film was released on Blu-ray and DVD by Soda Pictures on 31 August 2015, with the Blu-ray including a 21-minute "making-of" featurette and the film's trailer.
On 26 April 2016, the film was released by The Criterion Collection for Region 1 on Blu-ray and DVD in a new 4K digital master. Both include a conversation between director Christian Petzold and actress Nina Hoss, a new interview with the film's cinematographer Hans Fromm, and a documentary featuring interviews with the cast and crew from 2013, as well as the film's original trailer, and a new English subtitle translation. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack for the film. The new Blu-ray and DVD cover is made by Nessim Higson.
Phoenix was given a limited release in two theaters under Sundance Selects on 24 July 2015, where it grossed $28,210 during the weekend. As of 30 October 2015 the film has earned a gross of $3,143,677 in North America, making it one of the highest-grossing German films in the United States in recent years.
Phoenix received significant acclaim from critics. On Metacritic, which assigns a rating in the 0–100 range based on reviews from top mainstream critics, the film has an average score of 89, based on 30 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim". The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported a 98% approval rating with an average rating of 8.1/10 based on 101 reviews. The site's critical consensus reads, "Tense, complex, and drenched in atmosphere, Phoenix is a well-acted, smartly crafted war drama that finds writer-director Christian Petzold working at peak power."
The A.V. Club's A.A. Dowd described Phoenix as a "noir psychodrama for the ages" and Nina Hoss as "an actress of old-school glamour and modern nuance." He wrote: "Petzold has made an expertly tuned genre piece, one whose pulpiness—guns, face changes, a danger-laced nightlife—doesn't conflict with its more serious aims, and whose deep real-world resonance doesn't compromise its dramatic economy. No scene is unnecessary. No shot is wasted."
The National Board of Review named Phoenix as one of the Top 5 Foreign Language Films of 2015.