Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss reteam for a bold, fundamentally flawed drama
Christian Petzold follows 2012's exquisite Barbara with a rather more audacious tale, once again starring his muse Nina Hoss. His seventh cinematic feature dons the duplicity and shadowy stylings of a (full colour) film noir and is flush with the credibly conveyed anguish you'd expect from a drama set in post-World War II Germany's open wound.
Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, a concentration camp survivor and burns victim who courageously returns to Berlin in 1945, accompanied by her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf). A specialist clinic offers her a new face for a fresh start, but Nelly insists on looking as she did. Despite the surgeon's best efforts, her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) fails to recognise her when she tracks him down. Instead, believing her to be a stranger with a passing resemblance to his deceased wife, he drags her into a plan to secure Nelly's inheritance, taking her in and – in scenes which recall Vertigo – transforming her back into the glamorous singer she once was.
Phoenix trades in post-war guilt, trauma and paranoia, considering the difficulty of returning to the homeland that persecuted and rejected you, and into the arms of those that may have betrayed you. It comes at the subject from an imaginative, highly cinematic angle but is consistently undermined by the dubious central conceit; even given the confidence-sapping ravages of Nelly's wartime ordeal and the facial reconstructive surgery, it seems unlikely that Johnny wouldn't recognise his wife.
Perhaps had Petzold's film fully embraced the melodrama of noir it might have worked (in the same way the somewhat comparable The Skin I Live In pulled off its own improbable identity crisis by relaying it with gumption); and, although the leads are characteristically compelling, the subtlety of Hoss and Zehrfeld's performances ill-suits the bold, difficult-to-buy premise, while Kunzendorf is frustratingly sidelined, even though Lene's story is equivalently intriguing. Still, unforgettable imagery is in plentiful supply and the recreation of 40s Berlin is nothing short of incredible, particularly in its seedy night-time guise, with the film ending on a desperately moving note. If it fails to consistently transcend its narrative troubles Phoenix does, on occasion, take flight.
Selected release from Fri 8 May.