phoenix

Phoenix

Germany (2014) Dir. Christian Petzold

How well do you know your partner? I mean really know them? Obviously things such as likes, dislikes, habits and general personality traits will be ingrained within you after a substantial length of time but could you be fooled by a look-a-like? This intriguing mystery drama, based loosely on the 1961 French novel Le Retour des cendres by Hubert Monteilhet, explores that very premise.

Near the end of World War II Holocaust survivor Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) returns to Berlin with close friend Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf) to have reconstructive surgery on her severely damaged face. Nelly is told that a complete rebuild of her old face is impossible but a close approximation is achievable. With her family having died the war Nelly stands to inherit a vast sum of money which Lene suggests Nelly uses to restart her life in Palestine.

However Nelly is still pining for her musician husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) and plans to find him in Berlin, despite Lene accusing Johnny of being the one that betrayed Nelly to the Nazis in the first place. Nelly finds Johnny at the club Phoenix but he fails to recognise her, yet he notices a strong resemblance to his late wife. Aware of Nelly’s inheritance, Johnny offers Nelly – calling herself Esther – half the money if she poses as the late Nelly to get the money.

Trust me, it is much easier to understand this complex plot from watching the film than reading it in précis form. It probably sounds absurd and farfetched – how can a man not recognise his own wife even if she does look a bit different? – but Christian Petzold and the sublime Nina Hoss, in their sixth collaboration, makes us believe every step of the way.

In what is a slow burn movie the story quietly unfolds with a subtle air of Hitchcockian mystery before teasing us that we are watching a potential noir which dissolves into an incisive and revealing character study. Such bait and switch is a key facet in keeping the viewer on their toes and the story turning over with less chance of predictability.

The period setting might seem incidental to the plot but works in favour of the plausibility of Johnny’s remarkable ignorance in having his wife under his very nose and not noticing; a modern setting would have seen Nelly have a complete facial reconstruction making the “double” plot useless, creating an entirely different film altogether.

Deception is a central theme that underlines the motives of both characters albeit for very different reasons – Nelly accidentally stumbles into her lie when Johnny fails to recognise her, Johnny has his plan already concocted and is waiting for the final piece of the puzzle to arrive. That Nelly falls into his lap is a contrivance but we can overlook this for the sake of the upcoming narrative.

With Nelly on board Johnny startles her with his knowledge of how his wife should look aesthetically, supplying shoes, clothes and insisting Nelly dyes her hair. Amazingly Johnny still doesn’t twig when Nelly is able to duplicate her own handwriting and even after spending a few weeks together the penny never drops. For her sins, Nelly isn’t about to reveal herself either but she is aching to say something or for Johnny to finally notice.

The plot discussion ends there otherwise we’ll spoil everything. This curious story isn’t rife with many plot twists beyond the main premise, but is hinged on if/when Johnny ever finds out the truth about “Esther”. Petzold plays his hand with a studied and deliberate confidence that the audience will not get ahead of themselves and if they do, he is ready to suggest otherwise.

He allows the drama of the relationship to unfold through the unspoken, letting Nelly’s tortured glances and quivering uncertainty towards Johnny tell the whole story. The pacing feels a little glacial for the first thirty minutes or so, but one’s patience is rewarded when you realise we are being given the chance to acclimatise to the setting at the wartime period.

For each of the three genres hinted at, Petzold presents them in their respective styles – the opening mystery segment of Nelly’s surgery has a dark, brooding eeriness to it; the Phoenix night club and the dark shadowy streets around it are unmistakably noir in look at feel; the remainder of the film is simply but superbly  shot, simmering with taut dramatic undertones.

The film ends on a powerful but decidedly open note that is hauntingly brilliant in its simplicity but frustrating in it abruptness; once it sinks though the rationale behind it make more sense and the story feels just as complete had it gone any further. The soft focus final shot adds much to the poignancy of this denouement yet belies the true intent of the scenario it depicts.

Nina Hoss is one of Germany’s most consistent actresses, something Petzold clearly recognises, casting her in many of his best films, including the Oscar nominated Barbara. Once again Hoss justifies this faith in her with a stunning multi-layered performance befitting such an unwittingly complex character in Nelly. To play a woman who is playing a woman playing a facsimile of herself requires the experience and understanding which Hoss has in abundance, in one of the year’s most delicate performances.

As Lene Nina Kunzendorf offers able support but her role is cut short and her importance in Nelly’s life isn’t fully established. Ronald Zehrfeld as Johnny is a competent sparring partner for Hoss especially in the early going, the growth and development of his character however is less obvious than Nelly’s.

The conceit of Johnny not recognising his own wife might require a lot of goodwill for some viewers but if you can get past this, Phoenix will reward you with a deliberately paced but engaging drama boasting a superlative lead performance that is unlikely to be forgotten in a hurry.

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