Reviews - Phoenix
Reviewed By Vaughan Ames
The people who were a lot more than disappointed are all those who could not make it to the cinema because of our horrific floods. My heart goes out to anyone who is suffering from the results of this, and we send our sincere condolences.
Back in Germany, we follow a car arriving at a checkpoint just after the war has ended. Inside is a figure whose face is completely swathed in bandages. The guard insists on seeing her face, but backs away apologising as she removes the bandages; we know she is badly wounded.
There follows several scenes, over several weeks where her face is rebuilt by a plastic surgeon (she wants to look just like she did before). One scene hit me; she follows another person who is equally swathed into a room where they find pictures of themselves on the wall; both patients appear as 'ghosts', which is what they are – both to the world and, especially to themselves. 'I no longer exist', she says. By this point we have found out 'she' is Nelly, and she has just been rescued from a concentration camp.
Her rescuer, Lene, is trying to 'recruit' for Israel – she cannot forgive any German, nor understand how Nelly could want to stay in Germany. As Nelly's face gradually recovers, we learn that she was a jazz singer and she wants to find her husband and pianist, Johnny, even though Lene tells her he probably was responsible for having her arrested as a Jew (he was arrested the day before her, but released as soon as she was taken).
Nelly begins to wander the streets, looking for Johnny. She is prompted to look in the American clubs that have sprung up. She finds Johnny in the 'Phoenix' bar... but he does not recognize her (not just because her face is different; Johnny is convinced she is dead). Johnny does, however, see a way of making a fast buck; Nelly looks enough like she did for him to conceive of the plan to pretend she has returned to get the money she has inherited.
Nelly is so thunderstruck by not being recognized that she plays along with him and, as Esther, she lives in Johnny's flat while he trains her to be... herself! (Nelly is played by Nina Hoss and her acting is magical as she gradually transforms back).
The dénouement is wonderful. She gets off a train to be met by Johnny and several old friends; will they be convinced? Indeed, we are not sure if they are in on the plot anyway – maybe Johnny is using them to build her back story. They all hug her on the platform and then go into the station bar to celebrate. There, they want to hear her sing with Johnny again; she was a real star before and they are excited to hear her.
Nelly whispers to Johnny to play 'Speak Low'...she starts to sing, talking the words and we watch Johnny's face – he fears she will not be able to pull it off. Gradually she begins to sing beautifully; at the same time Johnny sees the camp number tattooed on her arm...he realises Esther really is Nelly. Stunned, he stops playing and, eventually Nelly walks out of the bar. The end.
The fun began then; what did the ending mean?! Some thought he was stunned because his plan had backfired and he would lose the money, I thought he was stunned because he had always loved her and couldn't believe she was alive. We had been told that he had divorced her just before she was arrested; did that mean he did not love her even then, or that the Nazis had given him no choice..? A great ending; it leaves it up to you to decide what happens next...
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