Looks can be de­ceiv­ing

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS - DON­ALD CLARKE

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.

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