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the colonial theatre marquee

Phoenix

Directed by Christian Petzold. Germany. 2015. PG-13. 98 minutes. IFC Films. Digital.
Fri., October 23, 2015 thru Thu., October 29, 2015
Friday
October 23, 2015
7:30 pm
Saturday
October 24, 2015
8:00 pm
Monday
October 26, 2015
6:30 pm
Tuesday
October 27, 2015
7:30 pm
Wednesday
October 28, 2015
2:00 pm
Wednesday
October 28, 2015
4:30 pm
Wednesday
October 28, 2015
7:30 pm
Thursday
October 29, 2015
7:30 pm

“In Christian PetzoldsPhoenix, the tall, blonde German actress Nina Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, a Jewish nightclub singer who survives a concentration camp despite being shot in the face by the Nazis and left for dead and returns to a rubbled postwar Berlin in search of her non-Jewish husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). This is Hosss sixth film with Petzold (most recently, she was a battered wife inYellaand a persecuted East German doctor inBarbara), and its not the first time that she has played a traumatized ghost. The Holocaust has obliterated not only Nellys face but also her identity, her sense of self, her place in the world. Her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) insists that it was Johnny who gave Nelly up to the Nazis to save his own life and that she should leave Germany for Haifa, where theres an apartment waiting for her. But Nelly though she doesnt articulate it, moving throughout the film in a trance thinks that only Johnny can bring her back to life.

What follows is a haunting, morbidly romantic melodrama with obvious links to Vertigo, but from a reverse angle. A plastic surgeon does a remarkable job Nelly emerges very beautiful. But shes still not, in her own mind, Nelly, physically or spiritually. When she finds Johnny busing tables in the American sector, he doesnt recognize her hes sure his wife is dead. He does, though, regard this woman as a godsend. He thinks she looks enough like his wife to be able with the right clothes and hair and walk and way of speaking to pass herself off as Nelly and collect Nellys substantial inheritance. And the dazed Nelly allows him to coach her. She wants to tell him who she really is, but something holds her back. She wants him to see her.

The movies running musical motif is Kurt Weills yearning “Speak Low,” with lyrics by Ogden Nash: Speak low when you speak, love. Our summer day withers away, too soon, too soon … Its strummed by a bass in the opening scene. Its played in a club thats like a grotesque echo of Weimar cabarets, this time for American soldiers. It was a song that Nelly used to sing accompanied by Johnny on the piano. It permeates the film with its aura of love and death conjoined.

Thanks to Johnnys obtuseness, the film goes on a mite long. But Zehrfeld who acted opposite Hoss in Barbara keeps you guessing about why Johnny cant read her. He bears a resemblance here to Oliver Reed, brutish but with a hint of something soft: You know if hed stop conniving and really look at Nelly, hed understand. More and more, though, you realize that he doesnt want to look.

Phoenix is all Nina Hoss, though. Shes now one of the worlds most riveting screen presences and I hear shes great onstage, too, and that she sings opera. Shes different here than Ive seen her before the opposite of self-possessed. Nelly is disconnected from her own body. With her downturned mouth, thick underlip, and dark bags under her eyes, Hosss Nelly looks at times like Jeanne Moreau. But those eyes shine with a sort of glassy hope. Its heartbreaking to see the flash of anguish in them when Johnny tells her that her walk is all wrong, that shes nothing like Nelly and cant pull off the charade. What makes Phoenix finally so devastating is the realization that its not Johnny who needs to see Nelly, its Nelly who needs to see Johnny. Only then can Nelly like so many brutalized, disfigured souls find her place in this ravaged, postwar world.” (David Edelstein, Vulture)

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