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The Curtain Rises: On the Power of Christian Petzold’s Phoenix | Far Flungers

In the opening scene, we see two women in their car, which have just been stopped by American soldiers at a checkpoint. When one of the American soldiers notices that one of these two women is heavily bandaged on her head, he understandably becomes suspicious and demands she unbind her bandage. The camera does not show her bare face directly, but the soldier’s horrified reaction is more than enough for us to guess how terrible she looks in her injured state.

It is not long after the end of World War II, and Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) is going to Berlin along with her friend Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf), mainly for her treatment and recovery. After being arrested in late 1944, Nelly was promptly sent to Auschwitz, but she managed to survive in the end, and we come to gather that she sustained her serious facial injury around that time. When she is examined by a very skillful plastic surgeon, the doctor says that it will be easier to construct a new face for her instead of trying to reconstruct her original face, but Nelly, who happens to be wealthy enough to pay for her expensive surgery is adamant about getting her original face back.

After the successful reconstruction surgery, Nelly adjusts to her new face and environment with Lene’s help, though it takes some time to get used to her new appearance. It does not seem to be wholly different from the former one, but it looks and feels different to her and others. She and Lene rent a fairly nice apartment, which will be their temporary staying place for now, and they also hire a resourceful housekeeper, who can always prepare decent meals for them in spite of the poor supply of many cooking ingredients in post-war Berlin. Lene, who has been working at an agency handling the records of Holocaust victims and survivors, is planning to move to Palestine for the new beginning for her and Nelly someday, but Nelly is not so sure about whether she really wants that or not.

Meanwhile, Nelly searches for her pianist husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, who appeared along with Hoss in Petzold’s “Barbara”). Before their life was disrupted during the war, she was a singer who worked with her husband, and he helped hide her, but it seems that he was directly responsible for her capture. According to an official record, Johnny was arrested and then released shortly before she was arrested, and this clearly suggests his betrayal, even if Nelly has trouble believing it.

Nelly eventually finds Johnny, but he no longer works as a pianist. Working at a seedy nightclub named Phoenix, he now prefers to be called Johannes instead of Johnny, and he does not even recognize his wife when they finally meet again. To him, Nelly is merely a woman who happens to closely resemble his dead wife. And then it turns out that Johnny has a scheme in which Nelly may be quite useful. Looking for any chance to get his hands on his dead wife’s considerable fortune, Johnny asks Nelly to disguise herself as, well, herself. Though she does not reveal her identity, Nelly finds herself becoming her husband’s willing accomplice while unpacking the conflicted she has about him.

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