Phoenix ponders the fallout of the Holocaust and the nature of identity. Day Moibi took a look.
It’s a rare moment in film when you forget you’re watching actors, but I found this watching Phoenix’s Nina Hoss effortlessly yet beautifully capture moments of despair, hope and love as if it was her own narrative.
Hoss is Nelly, a Holocaust survivor who is left badly disfigured after surviving the concentration camps and who undergoes plastic surgery and resurfaces in Berlin with a new face and a new name, Esther. Searching for her former husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), she meets him in a Berlin bar. He fails to recognise her but notices a stark resemblance to his presumed dead wife. With this he enlists ‘Esther’ into a scam – to pose as Nelly in order to steal her inheritance. Instead of revealing her identity, she goes along with the ruse and begins a despairing impersonation of her former self.
The premise may leave many viewers unconvinced, as suspension of belief is certainly necessary. Yet when you do, so will you fall under the intricate spell cast by Hoss and be left speechless.
In their sixth collaboration, director Christian Petzold once again calls on the actress to play a character of psychological intrigue and mistaken identity – a role she plays with aplomb. Her mastery leaves you stuttering, as you watch the delicate flowering and shattering of woman who was betrayed by her country and possibly the man she loves.
“Phoenix shows how silent and awkward evil can be, through the bombed ruins of Berlin and the eerie melancholy of the characters that troll the streets at night.”
Deceiving herself and him, they play a cat and mouse game which is monstrously charming, as she hopelessly tries to find herself in the eyes of another. Feelings of falsity and loss are often spoken in cinema but seldom felt; yet Petzold mirrors his previous work Yella (2007), creating a purgatorial world where you are bewildered by the thoughtlessness and desperation that can so easily entwine within the human condition.
Similar to his Oscar-nominated Barbara (2012), which was set during the Cold War, Petzold sets Phoenix in the post-Holocaust era, allowing for commentary on German history in intimate terms. Hannah Arendt, a Jewish philosopher who escaped the Nazis, wrote that evil could be banal. Not that it is unimportant, but rather that ordinary people could commit it, if they failed to truly think. Phoenix shows how silent and awkward evil can be, through the bombed ruins of Berlin and the eerie melancholy of the characters that troll the streets at night. It’s a feeling of desperation which Zehrfeld captures perfectly; you’re never quite sure whether to blame him for his deceptive deeds or sympathise, for he is also victim to the circumstances of the war.
Paying homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo through the web of psychological intrigue, Petzold delivers the surreal aftermath of the Holocaust.
My only thought as I watched was how could it could all end. Would Nelly tell Johnny who she was? How do you prove to someone that you are you? What is undeniably you?
The final moments prove identity can never be stolen or hidden for long. Nelly proves herself not by her eyes or her dress or even by her tattoo but by never losing her voice. And in the final shot, I sat trembling at the honesty that comes when no one dares talk, but instead they sing.515 Views
Day Moibi is an aspiring philosopher who spends most of her time thinking about cheese, the absurdities of life and film.