By Daniel Barnes
*Opens today at Landmark Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco, Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley, and Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.
“I can’t stand German songs anymore.” A left-field smash last year at TIFF, Christian Petzold’s quietly mournful post-WWII elegy Phoenix whispers infinite thematic and narrative echoes of Vertigo, but the film’s cold-blooded aloofness failed to fully captivate me. As the war comes to a close, a horribly burned woman named Nelly (Nina Hoss, very good) is smuggled across the German border and into a medical clinic, where the doctor offers her a new face – the old ones are “out of fashion,” after all. Nelly insists on keeping as much of her old face as possible, and despite the protestations of her pro-Israel savior Lene (“I can’t forget so easily.”), she returns to Berlin to reconnect with Johnny, the husband who betrayed her to the Nazis and left her for dead. When Nelly finally finds Johnny, he doesn’t recognize her, but instead recruits her into a scheme to impersonate his presumed dead wife and collect on the inheritance. Phoenix is the name of a creepo nightclub in the American sector where Nelly finds Johnny (it never fails to impress me when destitute movie towns are able to support a thriving surrealist nightclub scene), but Nelly is also a literal phoenix, rising from her own scorched ashes to live anew, with help from her own betrayer – “He’s made me back into Nelly again.” Petzold slowly and deliberately sketches out a world struck dumb by self-imposed amnesia, and it ends at a wallop of a destination, but that doesn’t fully excuse the bumpy journey.