PHOENIX, drama, rated PG-13, in German with subtitles, The Screen, 3.5 chiles
You know that nagging feeling that a face is familiar, but you can’t quite place it? Think how upsetting it would be if the face were your own.
That’s the situation in which Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a Jewish cabaret singer in Berlin before the war and a concentration-camp survivor after it, finds herself. Her face was shattered, but she pulled through, and has had reconstructive surgery. The plastic surgeon has advised her that she can have any face she wants, to start a new life. Nelly doesn’t want a new face. She wants her old face, and her old life, back. That isn’t going to happen.
At the center of her old life was Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), her ruggedly handsome Ernest Hemingway-lookalike husband. A few days before she was sent to Auschwitz, Johnny was picked up by the authorities. As it turns out, he was questioned and then released on the day she was arrested. The coincidence is damning, but Nelly doesn’t want to believe he gave her up.
The movie opens with two women in a car at night. One is Nelly, her face wrapped like the Invisible Man in bandages. The other is Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a close friend who would perhaps like to be more than that.
The Berlin to which the two women return is a still-smoking pile of bombed-out buildings, and Nelly, walking through the rubble after her bandages have come off, sees the reflection of her new face in a mirror shard. It’s familiar, but it’s a stranger. “I no longer exist,” she tells Lene.
Searching for Johnny, Nelly finds her way to Phoenix, the nightclub where she used to sing, which is still standing among the ashes. And there Johnny sees her and is struck by her resemblance to his supposedly dead wife. Johnny pressures her to impersonate Nelly in a scam to recover his wife’s inheritance. Nelly, against Lene’s urgent pleading, plays along, hoping against hope that Johnny will finally recognize her, and love her.
It doesn’t take much probing to find the plot of Vertigo in this tense, beautifully played film noir. Johnny instructs Nelly in how to look and sound like his lost wife, and she proves as apt a pupil as Kim Novak was for Jimmy Stewart.
Director Christian Petzold has loaded this remarkable story with symbolism, but never to the breaking point. And Hoss, who has made a number of films with this director, is stunning, as she keeps the character and her choices believable against heavy odds. It’s expertly constructed, expertly acted, and the finale is devastating. — Jonathan Richards
I strain: Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Hoss