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Wednesday, Aug 19 2015

Christian Petzold's gripping Phoenix fulfills the promise that was hinted at but never quite achieved in his previous collaboration with actress Nina Hoss, 2013's Barbara. Set in a rubble-strewn postwar Berlin, Phoenix stars Hoss as Nelly, a German-Jewish nightclub singer who survived a concentration camp but required reconstructive surgery after getting shot in the face. Now with a visage similar to but not quite the same as her old one (and against the advice of her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), who reasonably wants them to relocate to Palestine) Nelly enters into a dangerous relationship with her boorish ex-husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). He doesn't recognize her as Nelly, but intends to mold her, Vertigo-style, into a simulacrum of herself in order to tap into her family's fortune. Nelly goes along with it, to find out if Lene's accusation that Johnny secretly divorced her before betraying her to the Nazis is true, and because she doesn't want to let go of her old life, troubled as it was. Phoenix deftly explores troubling issues of identity and gender politics — Johnny was always a horrible person, but the idea that Nelly might have deserved better was alien. Petzold and Hoss have found a groove together, exploring strong but damaged women in difficult times in Germany's history.


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Sherilyn Connelly


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