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Phoenix - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: A-
Acting: A-
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B-

I guess I'm in the minority on this one. Phoenix is getting such unusually stupendous reviews, I can't help but wonder what I'm missing. I literally had trouble staying awake while watching this movie. Maybe it just caught me on a bad day? I can understand intellectually what other people like about it, so perhaps if I saw it again another time, with a different mindset, it would impress me more. The truth is I will forget about this movie quickly and easily.

Indeed it has a lot of intrigue going for it. Set immediately after World War II, Nelly (Nina Hoss) has been taken by her friend to get reconstructive surgery on her face after a bullet wound, using inheritance money after the entire rest of her family has been killed. The doctor is unable to make Nelly look exactly as she did before, much as she begs him to, and gives her a new face. Immediately one wonders: in the early 1940s, plastic surgery was too rudimentary to recreate an original face exactly, but it was still good enough to create a new face with no visible damage? Already I'm skeptical.

A good third or so of the movie is spent with Nelly and said friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), as Nelly recovers. She walks around first with her head and face entirely covered in bandages. Later we see her through several scenes with her new face, but bruised.

Nelly is obsessed with her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who Lene has already told her betrayed her to the Nazis immediately after his own arrest -- he was released when he told them where she was. Nelly doesn't even seem so much in disbelief as she just wants to find Johnny and be with him again. She finds him working at a nightclub -- called Phoenix -- and he doesn't recognize her.

This is where it gets weird. Johnny doesn't recognize his wife with a new face, presumably because not a lot of people had plastic surgery in the forties. He does, however, declare that she looks kind of like his wife, presumed by him to be dead, and he recruits her to impersonate his wife in order to gain her inheritance money. Apparently he registers no recognition in her voice or mannerisms, but whatever. One can assume spending time in a concentration camp, which totally breaks a person, could significantly alter such things, but still. There's a unique challenge to the suspension of disbelief here. This isn't a fantasy, after all; this is supposed to be a believable story in a world that actually existed.

Johnny has Nelly stay with him in his dingy basement apartment. He notes that his wife always dyed her hair and buys her hair dye, and makeup to make her face look the way it used to. He has her practice walking, and gives her examples of his wife's penmanship for her to learn. Mind you, these are all lessons Nelly is learning to be . . . herself. Johnny must be a real idiot.

All that aside, the direction and acting is top notch; this is a well-made film with clear talent up on the screen. I just couldn't find myself engaged by its glacial pace. Phoenix ends with a scene featuring Nelly singing at a piano while Johnny accompanies her, and in the context of the situation -- they've just returned from the train station, where Johnny's family is led to believe they're seeing each other for the first time in years -- it's spellbinding. And then the scene abruptly ends, as does the movie, rendering it mystifying. It might have worked better had it not been such a slog to get there.

Certainly plenty of intellectual cinephiles will disagree. But this is one of those movies tailor made for the critics, and a rare occasion in which I'm left with the populists who are more than ready to move on to the next movie, unlikely ever to think much about this one again.

Ronald Zehrfeld doesn't realize Nina Hoss is his wife in PHOENIX.

Overall: B-
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