Nelly (Nina Hoss) is a holocaust survivor returning to Germany soon after the end of the war, brought back to the world by her friend Lene (Nina Kuzendorf). When we first meet Nelly she is wrapped in bandages from the mistreatment wrought on her in the concentration camps. More bandages replace these as, with the help of a plastic surgeon, she has her face ‘recreated’ to as close an approximation of her previous features as he is able to muster. Lene informs Nelly that it was her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) who gave her up, betraying her to save himself. Nevertheless, feeling detached from both her home and herself, Nelly searches for her former love in the ruins of their old neighbourhood.
She was formerly a singer, Johnny a pianist. Together, one suspects, they were quite the couple. So Nelly looks for him in the little clubs that have surfaced in the wreckage of what once was, finding him – appropriately – in a joint that shares the name of the film. Johnny does not recognise her as his former wife, instead seeing her as an acceptable doppelgänger with whom he can build a rouse that ‘his’ Nelly has returned safe and sound; a rouse to secure back her wealth. Nelly, despite warnings from Lene, goes along with Johnny’s plan; allowing herself to become a captive of sorts, stowed away in a cellar room while the two of them work on her ‘act’; her transformation into the woman Johnny once loved.
It’s a rather incredible set-up, and in order to be taken by Phoenix you have to accept not one but two far-fetched conceits; that plastic surgery in 1945 would be capable of what is proposed here and that Johnny would be so completely unable to cotton that Nelly really is his former love. Director Christian Petzold asks a lot of his audience in this regard, and in the internet’s golden age of snarking and nitpicking it would be very easy to dismiss his tall tale as simply too far a flight of fancy. Yet the richness of Phoenix makes such suspension of belief readily welcome – the central relationship is too ripe with fascinating interplay, both intellectual and emotional. Loose those high-concept strings, allow this Phoenix to soar, and hopefully you’ll be amply rewarded. I certainly was.
The reasons for the film’s success are many. On the one hand it plays as an examination of post-war Germany at large. Like the country that so cruelly betrayed her, Nelly is unsure of herself, her confidence torn low, her identity misshapen, pocked with questions. Her journey of rediscovery begins before she is reunited with Johnny, but under his scrutiny it only intensifies as she stumbles back into the light. Frequently we are presented with the image of Nelly appearing out of darkness. She has to come to terms with her new self; irrevocably changed from the person she was, able to mimic that ghost but at the same time transforming, entering some new phase.
Johnny’s part in this is equally resonant. Either he genuinely doesn’t recognise her or he is in acute denial. Both suggest the embodiment of a culture of post-traumatic stress; a shell-shocked refusal to accept such intense changes. His eager attempts to rekindle a more youthful, romantic and innocent facsimile of the past speak of a grave level of grief, guilt and regret. These emotions play on a personal level as well. Petzold keeps the audience suspicious of what really happened between them. For a long time Lene’s openly biased version of events is the only record we’re allowed to hear. The question hangs over the film; did Johnny really give her up, or has this all been misconstrued? An assumption from a chaotic time in which blame was handed out all too quickly. Are they both in a silent pact of suppression?
Nelly’s reasons for acquiescing to Johnny’s plan are not of the head but of the heart (why would she agree to a scheme to win back only part of an inheritance she is already entitled to in full?). Her motives are more complex. Part of her hasn’t had the time to process Johnny’s apparent injustice toward her and so is stuck in love with him, craving the relationship of old. Part of her also seems perversely happy to place herself in the role of captive once more, a dislocated element of Stockholm Syndrome which plays out as she practices her former handwriting for Johnny, waiting expectantly for his assessments.
It’s a slow-burn of a film, but one which, once it has you, works toward its shattering conclusion with a suspenseful inevitability. Yet still, when the gripping final scene comes, it feels like a genuine surprise, so well have the emotional ties been established. Petzold is the master behind this terrific fakery, yet the highest praise ought be reserved for Hoss’ chameleonic central turn. Though she goes through several phases of transformative make-up, it’d all be for nothing if it weren’t for the wholly realised performance beneath. Even at her most disguised she makes Nelly’s tumultuous core readily available, through eyes that feel as though they’ve seen and felt more than they can withhold. After watching her emerge from darkness the whole time, the film’s final shot lets her leave the other way, the viewer left to reconcile the journey taken and contemplate the way ahead.