Director: Christian Petzold
Major Players: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld
Out Of Five: 4.5
It’s not often that a film really lodges itself in my brain, but Christian Petzold’s Phoenix did. I watched it, went to bed and woke up still thinking about it. This unexpectedly seductive post-War-set story about identity, survival and betrayal leaves a lingering impression for so many reasons, all of them good.
Immediately after World War II, Nelly (Nina Hoss) has survived the concentration camps but with horrific facial injuries. Thanks to her devoted friend Lene (Nina Kuzendorf), she undergoes extensive cosmetic surgery, which changes her appearance forever. She then starts a search for her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) but, when she tracks him down, he doesn’t recognise her. Instead he tells her his wife is dead but, as he can’t prove it, he won’t benefit from her huge inheritance, the result of the loss of her entire family. So she agrees to ‘impersonate’ herself so he can claim his share.
With classic film noir having something of a revival at the moment, this is a modern take on the genre. There’s no violence and nobody is killed – not physically, anyway. Nelly is still herself underneath, but her new face means that the Nelly everybody knew – with the exception of Lene – has gone. Even her husband doesn’t recognise her, although he does acknowledge there’s something familiar about her and she turns out to be an extraordinarily able pupil, imitating his wife’s handwriting as if by instinct and slipping into her shoes, the only remaining items from her wardrobe, with perfect ease.
It’s not just her face that’s changed. She’s a profoundly different person since her time in the camp. The confident, glamorous singer has been replaced by a painfully thin, shuffling rabbit in the headlights, startled by the smallest thing. But there’s part of her that remains intact. She’s an extraordinary survivor, both physically and emotionally, and the one thing that kept her going during the darkest days was the thought of finding her beloved husband again. And she can’t let go of the idea.
Structured like a thriller, the film replaces the usual sense of tension with anticipation as Nelly and Johnny’s parallel and intertwining stories slowly unpeel. Throughout the film, Nelly always knows who she is, but struggles to come to terms with the realisation that she never really knew her husband. From the outset, she wants him to know who she is, but her reasons change as their relationship shifts. Johnny, on the other hand, remains blissfully ignorant that she really is his wife, not an imposter. That is, until the shattering final scene of the film, which is more of a reveal for him than the audience …….
Petzold draws on a couple of classic films to give the film further depth. Post war Berlin is ravaged, covered with mountains of brick and dirt in place of buildings – a throwback to Carol Reed’s Vienna of The Third Man. The oblique and sinister camera angles aren’t there, but the sense of menace remains, especially for the vulnerable Nelly. There’s shades of Hitchcock as well, who explored the idea of a female double in Vertigo.
Nina Hoss is sensational as Nelly, fragile, damaged yet with her inner strength somehow remaining intact. Her physical scars may have been replaced by smooth skin, but her emotional ones have barely started to heal. She’s almost been destroyed by her experiences and is perilously close to being destroyed all over again by discovering the truth about her husband.
The haunting Phoenix gets a limited release around the UK from this Friday. Its insight, compassion and that profoundly moving performance from Nina Hoss make it worth seeking out and relishing.
Phoenix is released in selected cinemas around the UK on Friday, 8 May.