This week’s movie, picked by Jillian, wasn’t her first choice (I messed that up single-handedly by being a prize dufus) but I’m so glad we finally got the opportunity to see it, as I know we’ve both had it on our lists for a while. Ever since we both fell a little in love with Nina Hoss in Barbara which, funnily enough, was the first film we reviewed in 2016.
Barbara itself didn’t set our lives alight, though it definitely had some good bits. Will 2014’s Phoenix be any better?
A disfigured Holocaust survivor sets out to determine if the man she loved betrayed her trust.
Nelly Lenz (Hoss) is a Holocaust survivor with a seriously fucked up face thanks to a gun shot wound. Following the end of World War II and the closing down of the concentration camps, she returns to Berlin to undergo radical facial reconstruction. She’s staying with her friend Lene (Kunzendorf), who is understandably protective of Nelly (I read a bit of sexual attraction on Lene’s part but that might just be me).
Nelly, incidentally, has lost every one of her family and as a result is quite well off now. Which is why she can pay for the best surgery and is talking about starting a new life with Lene in Tel Aviv. She’s holding back on leaving her old home behind though (even though their apartment has been bombed to the ground) and it’s only because she wants to find her husband, Johnny (Zehrfeld), who may or may not have sold her out to the Nazis. This betrayal resulted in her being sent to the camps.
Johnny is played by the same actor who played the love interest in Barbara and at the time I likened him to Brendan Fraser, which totally put me off him. In this there’s a bit of Brad Pitt to him too, which also makes me feel uneasy. It’s fine though because Johnny is not a likable man and he’s probably a no good double crosser too.
As Nelly heals slowly from her surgery (and looks beautiful) she also starts going out at night looking for Johnny. Johnny is a pianist so she starts her search in the jazz clubs of Berlin. Nelly, it is worth mentioning, is a cabaret singer herself.
Lene has actually seen Johnny in passing but has purposefully kept it from Nelly. Later she admits it’s because he’s a goddamn fucking pig traitor (to paraphrase) and that she has no time for his bullshit. She also reveals that Johnny believes Nelly to be dead and is therefore after her money.
Nelly’s surgery means that she doesn’t quite look like she used to. So when she finally finds Johnny in da club, he doesn’t recognise her and takes her for a complete stranger. Nelly doesn’t correct him. Johnny does however tell her that she reminds him of his (dead) wife – and that he has a plan to help her make some money if she’s up for it.
Boy is she up for it.
So the plan is this: Johnny, who knows Nelly as ‘Esther’ will keep Esther indoors for a few weeks, train her up to pull off the role of his wife Nelly, returned safe from the camps (not dead after all), so they can get their hands on Nelly’s inheritance and split the proceeds, finally going their separate ways.
You with me? Cool.
Nelly or Esther now, practices Nelly’s handwriting, her walk, her mannerisms while Johnny is frankly ungrateful. She dyes her hair and puts on make-up to resemble Nelly, wears her dresses and her shoes – and Johnny still has beef. In all this time, Nelly remains convinced that he didn’t turn her in and relays as much to Lene, who is very against the whole thing.
Nelly seriously believes she and Johnny will be together in love again soon, and I have no idea how exactly this is meant to play out, but women in love and all that, am I right?
Lene is a wonderfully poised angel of a woman who I really love. Her gentle care of Nelly is beautiful to behold and it kills me that she doesn’t get the peaceful ending she deserves. Unfortunately, Lene is too pure for this world and the inherent sadness within her catches up with her.
This is key as following on from Lene’s tragedy, she leaves Nelly a very clear note confirming something that Johnny did before she was arrested and taken away by Nazi scum. She’s left in little doubt now that her man is a treacherous prick.
Nelly/Esther meanwhile is really nailing her Nelly performance, and Johnny is finally pleased with her progress. So they cement their plans for her ‘return’, which requires her to convince their friendship circle that she is back, baby and better than ever.
Will the plan work though? Will Nelly/Esther convince everybody that Nelly is back from the dead? Will Johnny get his hands of her cold hard cash? And what the hell is the bloody truth, Johnny? You surely owe us that.
Only one way to find out, yo.
I liked the slightly nuts premise of this film and although at times it just sort of drips along, you can feel the longing in its tone. It’s sad and frustrating and beautiful at points.
Nina Hoss is very expressive and I’d love to see her in more, though the stand out for me is Nina Kunzendorf, whose strength and sadness just made me want to watch only her. What a character and what a badass wardrobe she rocks (call me superficial).
Johnny too is played with care (nice one Zehrfeld). You really do root for his ploy to be uncovered and for him to get his comeuppance. Will he though?
I was disappointed to begin with that Nelly came out of her surgery so facially unscathed, it just seemed a little too neat to me but I know the story wouldn’t have worked if she’d not looked vaguely similar to herself. I guess the macabre side of me wanted something a bit darker. Always.
4/5. A bit slow-paced but beautiful and tense. I’m still annoyed that I didn’t get more Lene but I’m happy with the final scene, which is wonderfully executed. Fuuuuuck you, Johnny. Seriously, go fuck yourself with a chainsaw.
What did my Queen think? Would she stab this one in the back or protect it at all costs? Find out right here, right now. ❤