Monday, 11 May 2015

Film #32: Phoenix (12A)

Released: 2015
Director: Christian Petzold

Jewish singer Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) survives the concentration camps with horrific facial injuries that leave her requiring reconstructive surgery. While recovering with a friend, she discovers that – as the sole survivor from her family – she has inherited a large amount of money. Meanwhile, her husband Johnny is under the impression that Nelly, too, is dead, and is looking for a way to get his hands on her fortune.

When the two meet, he doesn’t recognise her as Nelly. However, he does notice the resemblance to his wife – and promptly asks Nelly to impersonate herself in order to claim and split the money. As she learns to pretend to be the wife he says she was, she starts to doubt their former relationship.

For me, the problem with this film was the central conceit. Nelly looks enough like her former self that her husband believes she can impersonate herself, yet doesn’t realise it’s actually her – even though her handwriting is identical, and even once she dyes her hair and changes her clothes! Still, if anyone can sell it, Nina Hoss can. A shattered shadow of the woman she was before falling victim to persecution, she starts to piece herself back together as Johnny tells her all about their former life together. 

Despite struggling to suspend my disbelief, by the end of the film I was desperate for Johnny to get his comeuppance and worried that Nelly might choose to go back to him. Things might not be wrapped up neatly at the end, but the final sequence had me smiling in satisfaction. I suspect this might have something to do with the quality of the central performance – in lesser hands, the whole thing could have seemed completely ludicrous.

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