Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A post war identity crisis

Christian Petzold’s Phoenix (opening Friday at The Maple Theater) is a story of lost love but with a twist. Germany has just surrendered after World War II and rubble-heaped Berlin is divided into Allied sectors. Nelly (Nina Hoss) is a Jew who suffered a disfiguring facial injury and requires surgical reconstruction. She returns to her old neighbourhood and searches for her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). She finds him (quite readily) working as a busboy in a nightclub. He doesn’t recognize her but cooks up a plan to have her impersonate his former wife - in other words, impersonate herself! She’s in love with him and agrees to go along. And despite her trying to convince him she’s really his wife he’ll have none of it. But what’s on Johnny’s mind is to exploit Nelly’s inheritance. She agrees to pose as his wife (ironically as herself) to claim the estate. He also coaches her on how she is to arrive on a displaced persons’ train and behave while the family and he greets her. She goes along with all this, seemingly, because she’s still so in love with him. When she changes her hair colour and clothing to mimic what she used to look like he’s startled for a moment but then says “it’s all wrong.” She tells her confidente Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), “I’m really jealous of me!” This may sound funny but in the film's context it’s really not. But it does make you want to give old Johnny a shake since Nelly’s facial reconstruction and mannerisms are close enough to what she used to look and be like. Or, more practically, to have Nelly shake him since she's such a diffident character. Moreover, Lene can’t understand Nelly’s continuing attraction to Johnny, who betrayed her during the war as a Jew. “The gasses come and we forgive,” she says despondently. Johnny is a pianist and Nelly a singer. And when they finally perform before family and Johnny hears Nelly’s voice it’s then that he recognizes this woman must indeed be his wife. I know this story is based on a novel, Le Retour des cendres by Hubert Monteilhet. But that story must have had more believeability because it introduced a third dimension in a daughter who is trying to determine parental recognition. In the film, it seems implausible that Johnny wouldn’t recognize Nelly and the fact he doesn’t undermines the plot’s credibility. Moreover, the film is a one-trick pony - a drawn out effort by two people to create a false impersonation. It would have been nice to have had a few subplots (the exploitation of nightclub performers or the sordidness of post-war Berlin although one incident suggests this). Or it could have had greater context: I didn’t think many Jews returned to their homes after the war; Nelly sought her husband but wasn’t she otherwise conflicted?  The best parts of the film are the vivid dark, moody cinematography (Hans Fromm), and Zehrfeld and Hess’s stand out performances. Both also starred in Petzold’s 2012 Barbara - about an East Germany physician - which has more complexity and is a more satisfying picture.

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