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Phoenix PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sheila Seacroft   
29 05 2015
ImageDirected by Christian Petzold

Postwar Berlin. A man sees a woman, Nelly, who reminds him of his dead wife and persuades Nelly to impersonate her. Sounds like Vertigo? Well yes, but Phoenix is a Vertigo inverted and with gain, not love, at its heart. Because Nelly IS the wife, not dead but with her horribly mutilated face so reconstructed as to be unrecognisable by the one who should know her best of all. And the man is not acting through obsessive love but through greed, as far from love as it can possibly be.

Nelly (the wonderful Nina Hoss, Petzold's almost ever present leading actor) is brought to postwar Berlin by her female friend Lene, after escaping extermination at the camps, left for dead but surviving with dreadful facial injuries. What she ever looked like previously we never know, except through shadowy images on photographs. What the bandages now conceal is horrific enough to make the border guard wave them through in shame at having demanded she remove them. After plastic surgery she looks (rather unfeasibly) pretty normal but, self-conscious and her spirit still broken, she wanders night-time Berlin looking for her husband Johnny (another Petzold regular, Ronald Zehrfeld). She finds him in a down at heel nightclub, Phoenix, with the decadent, grimy look of prewar German cabaret, where he waits on tables as chanteuses of dubious sexuality perform, now mostly in English, for American soldiers. This is what is left of Germany, ground down, a new version of its old self, like Nelly. Meanwhile we know that Lene has unearthed evidence that Johnny divorced and almost certainly betrayed Nelly to the Gestapo. Nelly at first refuses to believe ill of him, and when, not recognising her, he persuades Nelly to pretend to be his wife to get his hands on her inheritance, she goes along with it, hopeless and downtrodden, saying nothing of her true identity.

There is a point at which this all seems so very improbable that you almost lose faith in the film. So many unlikely things to believe - that facial reconstruction could have so quickly returned an almost unblemished skin in the 1940s, that a man could not recognise his wife by anything other than her face - but it soon becomes clear this is no ordinary realistic thriller. Hold on and the dream-like quality takes over, and you can accept that on one level Nelly is not the woman she was, only the love is left in her, and Johnny's sheer greed and lack of love makes him blind to anything but his own grubby plans.

Identity, betrayal, buried feelings, all come together with Petzold's customary depth and elegance which is everywhere - from the handsomely filmed noirish scenes in night-time Berlin, a landscape of seedy despair, to the rapturous notes of the song Speak Low (by Kurt Weill, an émigré himself who forsook working in German for English) echoing throughout the film, leading to its devastating, diamond-bright climax. You'll be shaken.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, 10 May 2015

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