In the aftermath of WWII, Nelly, a Jewish survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, horribly disfigured from a bullet wound in her face, undergoes a series of facial reconstruction surgeries and decides to find her husband Johnny who works at the Phoenix club in Berlin. Undoubtedly, Nelly is stunning, yet, her new self is beyond recognition, so Johnny, the man who may have betrayed her to the Nazis, will never imagine that the woman in front of him who bears an uncomfortable and unsettling resemblance to his late wife, is indeed her. Without delay, and with the intention to collect the deceased's inheritance, Nelly will go along with Johnny's plot and she will impersonate the dead woman, giving the performance of a lifetime before friends and relatives in a complex game of deceit, duplicity, and ultimately, seduction. In the end, during this masquerade, as the fragile and broken Nelly tries to find out whether Johnny betrayed her or not, she will have to dig deep into her wounded ...Written by
"Tomorrow is here, tomorrow is near and always too soon." Kurt Weill
Even if you're a disfigured Holocaust survivor like Nelly (Nina Hoss), tomorrow's march of time will bring its own survival scenario. Her new face gives her problems with her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), as he recruits her to impersonate his wife in order to get his wife's inheritance. As in Hitchcock's Vertigo, the lead female undergoes transformation dealing with the man in her life while sustaining the mistaken identity motif.
Even that plot feels Hitchcockean. No question it's a classic suspend-your-disbelief situation, and it has the almost dreamy quality of Boy in the Striped Pajama. Both works take an isolated, unbelievable scenario related to the Holocaust that nevertheless illuminates the numbing, existential anguish of that horror.
While Nelly searches for Johnny, she is also discovering strength in herself that is part survival and part recognition that the corruption of Auschwitz is not the only corruption in the world. The depiction of that dark postwar world has German expressionism written all over it with the black and white contrasts, lonely European streets and even the corruption and irony of the cabaret.
Nina Hoss's performance, part stunned and part determined, deserves award-season recognition. Her uncertain gait and disfigured face suggest the disorientation the war has brought.
Director Christian Petzold deserves credit for the stunning noirish look that also reflects a real-world, anytime struggle humans have with the combat between appearance and reality and the realization that we cannot know each other completely. As the title suggests and the name of the night club reflects, regeneration is possible but may be as elusive as the mythical bird.
"No movie has ever been able to provide a catharsis for the Holocaust, and I suspect none will ever be able to provide one for 9/11. Such subjects overwhelm art." Roger Ebert
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