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Phoenix - review

Apr 14, 2016 Film & TV

Having been imprisoned in a concentration camp, shot in the face and left for dead, a Jewish woman finds herself miraculously alive at the war’s end. She’s taken to a plastic surgeon in Berlin, who suggests a facial reconstruction utilising the latest in movie-siren facial features. No, the woman insists. She wants to look exactly like she used to.

It’s an impossible wish, of course, just like the hope she can somehow recreate the cheerful, artistic life she’d enjoyed before the war, when she had been a singer, her husband a pianist.

When the bandages come off, Nelly (Nina Hoss) is indeed unrecognisable to her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who believes she has died. But the passing resemblance is enough for him to hatch a plan to claim Nelly’s sizeable inheritance, using this stranger, now named Esther , as a stand-in for his wife. She undergoes a glamorous makeover and lessons in how to act like the woman she actually is, while struggling to reconcile her love for a man who may have betrayed her to the Nazis.

If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like Vertigo, you’re totally right, of course.

Watch the trailer:

It’s not just Phoenix’s doppelganger plot that echoes Hitchcock’s film, but its exploration of time and memory, self-preservation and self-deception. There’s even a sensible but exasperated friend (like Vertigo’s Midge) who appears to be secretly in love with the protagonist. Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a case worker for the Jewish Agency in Palestine, first saves Nelly’s life, then tries to persuade her to emigrate. Lene dresses in masculine clothing, her hair closely cropped — a quasi-mirror image to the possibly treacherous (and Gentile) Johnny. He represents Germany’s broken past, she a brighter future in the nascent Jewish state.

When your subjects are a woman with a brand new face, and a man incapable of recognising his own wife’s body, or voice, or kiss, some melodrama is unavoidable.

Hitchcock isn’t the only Hollywood reference German director Christian Petzold (Barbara) drops over the course of Phoenix’s zippy 98 minutes. He makes audacious callbacks to noir classics, including Orson Welles in The Third Man and the Bogie-in-bandages thriller Dark Passage, but his is a less florid cinematic style than his heroes’.

When your subjects are a woman with a brand new (but oddly scar-free) face, and a man incapable of recognising his own wife’s body, or voice, or kiss, some melodrama is unavoidable, as is the need for audiences to keep their disbelief firmly in check. But in telling a small story with absolute conviction, and by keeping the focus on Hoss’s anguished eyes and mask-like face, Petzgold conjures an acutely moving film out of a very silly premise.


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