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Germany 2014
Directed by
Christian Petzold
94 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars


Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) is a German-Jewish nightclub singer who has survived the Holocaust and returned to post-war Berlin in search of her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). She finds him but as she has had a facial construction as a result of a gun shot to her face he does not recognize her. He sees in her however a way to get possession of his presumed now dead wife’s estate if Nelly impersonates her under his guidance.  

Writer-director Christian Petzold’s film with its mix of deceit and desperation, mistaken identity and misplaced love has a certain Nabokovian quality that feels at times as if it would have been more suitable to the stage. What convinces at a distance is less so under the close scrutiny of the camera and some may question how could Johnny not recognize his wife, particularly as Nelly asked the plastic surgeon to make her look as close as possible to how she looked before she was disfigured (and Petzold makes no effort to have otherwise).  Like Nabokov however Petzold weaves a web of fascination in which we are trapped as Nelly is by her love for her duplicitous husband.

If Petzold, stylishly realizesw an intriguing concept Hoss who has starred in six of his films including his previous, the Oscar-nominated Barbara (2012) gives a poignant performance as the inwardly suffering Nelly who hopes in the goodness of her man even though all evidence is to the contrary.  Opposite her Zehrfeld is effective as Johnny whose self-serving betrayal of Nelly is subtly tied to the broader context of Germany’s Nazi experience. (The film’s title seems to share in that Nabokovian irony).

Phoenix is an engaging film. Cabaret lovers in particular will appreciate the use of Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s 1943 song ‘Speak Low’.

FYI: For thematically-related material see The Return of Martin Guerre (1982).




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