Christian Petzold has carved out a career of slow-burning dramas whose power rest in well-rounded characters with strong (but secret) motivations but Phoenix sees the German writer-director slip into melodrama.
Berlin, 1945 and former nightclub singer Nelly Lenz (Hoss) returns from Auschwitz psychologically shaken and her face severely disfigured. The extensive facial reconstruction she receives renders her almost unrecognisable, which is why husband Johnny (Zehrfeld), a pianist-turned-waiter in the titular nightclub, doesn’t notice her. Nelly doesn’t reveal her identity and instead goes along with Johnny’s plan to pose as his ‘dead’ wife and recoup the inheritance she has received when her family died in the war. He schools Nelly in how to talk, walk, write and act like his ‘former’ wife but best friend Lene (Kunzendorf) warns Nelly that it was Johnny who betrayed her to Nazis…
The idea has its problems. The deceit, the engine of the story, needs a fair whack of suspension of disbelief for it to work. Would Johnny really not recognise his wife? What opportunity does Nelly see in pulling the wool over her husband’s eyes? To fully appreciate the attention Nelly receives from her husband, and the joy she experiences when he knows so much about her, doesn’t resonate as the audience isn’t privy to the former machinations of their marriage. The title too is a little on the nose.
But slowly Petzold builds the blocks and suspension of disbelief becomes easier. The writer-director eventually convinces that the wobbly Nelly is mentally shaken enough to embark on such a ruse, and the chance to be remodelled, or at least emotionally rebuilt, is an enticing idea for someone as delicate as her. In letting Johnny put her back together again she might actually be the person she was before she was arrested.
Despite the troublesome narrative, Phoenix remains watchable as the anticipation towards the moment when the truth will out steadily grows, while regular Petzold collaborator Nina Hoss, mixing fragility with steely determination, once again proves she is one of the most exciting actresses in Europe today.