Looks can be deceiving
PHOENIX Directed by Christian Petzold. Starring Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld. Club, IFI, Dublin, 98 min The plot suggests Vertigo. The setting calls up reminders of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s work. But this extraordinary, shameless melodrama from Christian Petzold is most reminiscent of Douglas Sirk’s high-end soap. As in so many of that German director’s delicious films, a preposterous narrative convulsion is played with such conviction and sincerity that all reservations are swept to the wind. All other films seem, for a moment, watery by comparison.
Phoenix begins in postwar Germany, as suspicious US soldiers stop a car at night. An apparently ruined woman, her face wrapped in bandages, sits pathetically in the passenger seat.
We soon learn that Nelly (Nina Hoss), a former singer who survived the concentration camps, is on route to a comfortable inheritance in Berlin. The surgeons have managed to reconstruct her damaged face, but (take one leap towards implausibility) she now looks like an entirely different youngish woman.
Later, amid elegantly distressed noir chaos, Nelly encounters Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), her treacherous husband, and (take another leap) allows him to think she is a stranger who faintly resembles the woman he may have betrayed. A plan is hatched whereby Nelly, who Johnny believes to be dead, will impersonate herself, thus allowing the supposed fraudsters to split the inheritance.
One of the great themes of postwar German art has been the self-deception that society entertained to allow “normalisation”. There is something of that in the absurd fantasies that Johnny and Nelly construct, but no such sub-textual rationalisation would matter if Petzold were not able to extract such a rooted performance from his lead actress.
Hoss imposes herself on the drama with all the insistence of a less fabulous Dietrich. She is one of the actors of the age.