Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

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

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