Christa and I were unanimously decided the lead in Barbara, Nina Hoss, was the highlight of the film. Since this week’s film is essentially a cast reunion in a suspenseful film noir war drama, we are absolutely in.
Where to Watch:
After facial reconstruction surgery changes her appearance, a Holocaust survivor sets out to find her husband, the man who may have turned her in.
The Uncondensed Version:
Our film opens as two women cross back into the German border immediately following WWII. The driver, Lene, explains her passenger, who rests semi-unconscious and covered in bandages, is a survivor from the camps. After being seriously wounded by a shot to the face, Nelly is returning to Berlin for facial reconstruction surgery.
Nelly learns she can afford this expensive surgery only because of a large inheritance left to her as the only surviving member of her family. Though the results of the surgery will be quite impressive, her face will no longer be the one she knows. In a beautifully shot scene, Nelly sees her new face for the first time reflected in a broken mirror in the bombed ruins of her former home. “I no longer exist,” she says without emotion. Her desire to recapture what was lost contrasts sharply with Lene’s conviction that creating a new future in Israel is the only option for them.
Before the war, Nelly was a singer of some renown. Unlike Lene, she never really considered herself Jewish and feels no connection to the new Jewish state. Nelly also dreams of reuniting with her husband, Johnny, which Lene dismisses. As it turns out, Johnny was arrested days before Nelly…then released as soon as she was arrested. This is straight out of Hitchcock and would’ve had me running a mile from this shady dude. However, Lene keeps this information hidden for a while…along with the fact that Johnny filed for divorce before Nelly’s arrest.
Nelly, oblivious to all of this, becomes determined to track down her husband and live together as the devoted couple once again.
When Nelly finds Johnny, he’s working at a shady AF night club, called—guess what—the Phoenix. Conveniently, her face is different enough to dodge recognition, though she still bears some resemblance to her former self. This gives Johnny the idea to bring Nelly, now known as Esther, in on his scheme to claim his supposedly dead wife’s inheritance. They will split the money if they can pull off this scam, which seems like a great idea to Nelly…mostly so she can prove once and for all Johnny really loved her. IDK, I feel like knowing your husband has a scheme to collect your inheritance because he thinks you’re dead is a major tip-off…? But Nelly has a more trusting nature than that and wants to believe in her husband and the possibility of a return to a normal life.
While Esther trains to be Nelly, she isn’t allowed to leave Johnny’s apartment. It’s quite a twisted version of Pygmalion, with Johnny’s insistence that Nelly will dress glamorously and remain unchanged by her experience as a Holocaust survivor creating a bitter irony. He chillingly reassures her that what may have happened in the camps won’t matter as no one will ask about them. In a scene that’s almost funny but not quite, Johnny calls off the scheme when he decides no one will ever believe she’s the real Nelly.
However, Esther convinces him to keep going when she quickly masters Nelly’s handwriting. She tries to draw as much information from Johnny as possible, but he’s extremely reluctant to talk about the past. A sudden, dramatic complication arrives in the form of Lene finally revealing the truth about the divorce to Nelly.
The revelation leads to an incredibly final scene that unfolds painfully and heartbreakingly clearly.
4/5 Pink Panther Heads
Despite all of the melodramatic film noir elements (facial reconstructive surgery, a sketchy night club, an inheritance scheme, a case of mistaken identity), this film takes quite a realistic approach to betrayal and the lasting impact of war. The ending of the movie is haunting and understated in spite of the enormity of the revelation. Partly because it’s not a surprise to the audience, but also because it’s much more ambiguous than a revenge plot or a dramatic noir ending. It becomes clear Johnny will never see a dime of Nelly’s inheritance, but will he be punished for his role in Nelly’s harrowing experiences as a Holocaust survivor, and does he even feel the slightest remorse about it?
To pick a bone, however…even though a lot of the dramatic tension comes from the audience knowing the truth about Johnny quite early on, it still would’ve saved SO MUCH goddamn time if Lene had just fucking told Nelly what she knew to begin with. I wonder if Lene suspected Nelly wouldn’t believe her or possibly she didn’t want to break her heart completely with that knowledge? Either way, the revelation that your friend’s husband turned her into the authorities (presumably to die) seems like a pretty important detail to share.
It’s also really painful to watch Nelly blindly ignore the facts for so long, but it does make a degree of sense as acknowledging the truth means accepting that it’s no longer possible to return to the life she had before the war.
Nina Hoss is incredible in this and, as Christa noted, bears almost no resemblance to the character she played in Barbara. And not because the actress went method and really had facial reconstructive surgery. As far as I know.
2 thoughts on “Phoenix, or: A Miraculously Creepier Version of Pygmalion”
How did I forget honorary mention of that incredible hat with the veil? x
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