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Thursday, June 02, 2016


Phoenix is a 2014 German film that focuses on identity, betrayal, and lost. It was directed by Christian Petzold, whom I'm sorry to say I had not heard of before, and stars Nina Hoss, who has now made six films with Petzold. I should seek out some of the others.

It is Berlin, after the war. Hoss plays Nelly, and at first we see her swaddled in bandages. She is a concentration camp survivor, as well as the survivor of a bullet wound to the face. Her friend takes her to Switzerland to get reconstructive facial surgery. The friend wants to take Nelly to Palestine, but all she wants to do is find her husband, whom the friend says betrayed her.

Now, there is a little bit of suspension of disbelief going on here. Hoss wants to look like her old self (the doctor suggests female celebrities she might to look like, which made me wonder who I'd want to look like given the chance--Clooney?) but it's a close match, not perfect. But all she has is a couple of black eyes, even though her cheek and nasal bones were completely shattered. She wanders the streets of Berlin at night, looking for her husband, and finally finds him working as a busboy. He does't recognize her, but he does think she looks enough like his wife that she could pass as her to get her inheritance. He's willing to split it, 50-50.

Hoss goes along with him, and pretends not to be Nelly. He never catches on, at least not at the beginning, and harshly instructs her on to be Nelly, even though she already is. She keeps trying to figure out if he really betrayed her. It's kind of obvious he has no love lost for her, but she's a dope about him, until one crucial piece of evidence falls into her hands.

Hoss is a big deal in Germany, apparently, but she hasn't made anything in English except for some episodes of Homeland. She's very good, as is Ronald Zehrfeld as the husband, who shows off the screen persona of a young Russell Crowe.

Petzold based Phoenix on another film, but it feels fresh, as he moved the setting to the post-war, which seems perfectly appropriate. There are also echoes of Vertigo, in that Zehrfeld is trying to make a woman into another woman.

Phoenix is a very effective, suspenseful film that has a whole bunch of "what would you do" questions. I expect most women today would slap Zehreld in the face, but it's an intriguing question.

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