In Kobo Abe’s 1964 novel “Tanin no Kao” (“The Face of Another”), a scientist left disfigured by an industrial accident dons a synthetic mask and poses as a different man in order to seduce his estranged wife. When she responds rather too readily to his advances, he reacts angrily, only to discover that she knew it was her husband all along.
Watching Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix,” I kept longing for a similar display of spousal intuition. This attractive, superbly acted drama — loosely adapted from 1960s French potboiler “Le Retour des Cendres” — is founded on a premise that’s wobbly to the point of distraction.
In 1945 Germany, Jewish singer Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss, a regular Petzold collaborator) has survived the concentration camps but been left horribly maimed by a gunshot wound to the face. After undergoing reconstructive surgery that attempts, not quite successfully, to restore her former countenance, she goes in search of her pianist husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), navigating the lawless, rubble-strewn streets of nighttime Berlin.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||100 minutes|
|Language||German and English (Subtitles in Japanese)|
When she finds him at the titular Phoenix nightclub, he doesn’t respond to his old pet name anymore (he’s plain old Johannes now). In fact, he doesn’t recognize her at all, but — and this is where things keel into absurdity — he quickly takes her into his confidence. Noting her resemblance to his wife, who he presumes is dead, he asks her to impersonate his spouse so that they can claim her inheritance and split the money.
Initially bewildered, Nelly decides to go along with the scam, both to work out whether her husband was responsible for betraying her to the Nazis and in the naive hope that they can eventually rekindle their romance. It’s all too much for her sole friend and confidante, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf ), who spends her days sifting through archived records of Jews killed during the war, while planning a move to the safe haven that will soon become Israel.
Nelly is eager for reconciliation, but Lene knows enough about Johnny — and his fellow Germans — to be convinced of his guilt. “Do you know what disgusts me?” she asks. “We Jews wrote, sang and slaved, went to war for Germany, yet we were gassed, one and all. And now the survivors return and forgive.”
Some of the film’s most powerful scenes show the ruptures in German society created by Nazism and the war, as friends and neighbors were encouraged to betray one another. When Nelly is reunited with people who recognize her from the past, they don’t look relieved or happy so much as guilty. She’s a living reminder of their complicity.
The scenes in which Johnny molds Nelly into the woman that he remembers — dressing her, dictating how she walks and doing her make-up — are harder to swallow. Denial is a hell of a drug, but Johnny’s obliviousness to the evidence is downright baffling. Even when he sees Nelly produce an exact copy of his wife’s handwriting, he can’t seem to fathom that she is actually the same woman.
In lesser hands, this would be risible, but Hoss and Zehrfeld — reprising their on-screen partnership from Petzold’s acclaimed previous film, “Barbara” — have the dramatic chops to make it work. Hoss looks like she is trying to contain the entire gamut of emotions in her face, flickering from despair to delight and back again, while Zehrfeld struts with the pomp and petulance of a fashion stylist. (“Your hair is awful. Something’s got to be done about it,” he says.) It’s like “Pygmalion” directed by Roman Polanski; even if it’s never remotely plausible, it’s enthralling.
This is a juicier film than “Barbara,” which I honestly found a bit arid, but it’s also undoubtedly sillier. For all the tastefulness of its execution, “Phoenix” can’t disguise its trashy sensibilities. Peel away the arthouse skin and it has the heart and soul of a cheap airport novel.