Featuring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf
Director: Christian Petzold
Screenwriters: Christian Petzold, Harun Farocki; adapted from Hubert Monteilhet’s novel Le Retour des Cendres
Movie Website: www.phoenix-der-film.de/
Verdict: Some obvious credibility issues, but the film amounts to much more than the narrative, culminating in an emotional and dramatic powerhouse of a conclusion.
Phoenix director Christian Petzold’s previous film Barbara, set in pre-unification East Germany, was one of the best movies of the 2013-14 Perth International Film Festival. Phoenix is atmospherically and thematically similar, featuring a grim setting – in this case, a decimated post-war Berlin – and a female lead character (again played by the superb Nina Hoss) who finds a way to transcend her bleak circumstances by reclaiming her dignity and humanity against oppressive odds.
Singer Nelly (Hoss) is a Jewish concentration camp survivor who has sustained disfiguring facial injuries. Friend and fellow Holocaust survivor Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) takes her to Berlin for facial reconstruction surgery, which leaves her with altered facial features but – unbelievably – without scarring or evidence of traumatic injury. During her rehabilitation, she sets out to find her pianist husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), hoping that he still loves her and unwilling to accept Lene’s charge that he betrayed her to the Nazis. When she finds him at her old Berlin nightclub haunt, which is still standing among the bombed out ruins, he fails to recognise her, but noting a passing resemblance proposes that she masquerade as his deceased wife in order to claim her inheritance in return for a 50/50 split, should the scam succeed.
This is an intriguing premise, to be sure, but fraught with compounding credibility gaps that may be a challenge for some viewers to negotiate. When Johnny insists on Nelly moving in with him so he can coach her to pass as his wife, she effortlessly “forges” a sample of her own handwriting, perfectly fits into her own shoes and clothes, yet even when they kiss, he doesn’t twig. When in desperation she openly declares her identity, he dismisses her with irritation and impatience.
Somehow though, the credibility flaws do not ruin the film, which amounts to much more than the narrative. Best not to sweat the small stuff. As with Hitchcock, who routinely gets away with plot holes that could accommodate a passing truck, the characters remain compelling and the narrative absorbing, both perfectly pitched against the convincingly presented mood-backdrop of apocalyptic post-war Berlin.
For those so inclined, the movie is rich with allegorical and metaphoric interpretative possibilities – several after-viewing coffees’ worth. That’s if you are not struggling to talk after the emotional body slam of a conclusion, which resolves the work with all the high drama and last-breath resolution of a Beethoven symphony.
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