Saturday 23 May 2015


(Christian Petzold, 2014)

Petzold's control just gets more nuanced and precise by the movie. This noir set in the rubble of post-war Berlin and haunted by the shadow of the Holocaust is a frustrating, cold but compelling watch until an extraordinary climactic scene transforms it into something transcendent.
Nina Hoss plays Nelly, a Berlin singer who has barely survived Auschwitz and is horribly disfigured. After plastic surgery, while she awaits transport to Palestine, she searches for her husband Jonny (Roland Zehrfeld) through the ruins of the city and eventually finds him working in a nightclub in the American sector. Assuming she is dead, he doesn't recognise her but sees that she somehow resembles his wife and involves her in a scheme which involves her pretending to be herself while he remakes her in Nelly's image, adjusting her walk, hair and make-up, buying her clothes...
In this way an entirely twisted romance plays out, as Nelly re-learns herself through the eyes of the husband who hid and protected her but may have given her up to save himself.
Petzold has a minimalist, deceptively simple style that demands much of his cast. But Hoss and Zehrfeld are equal to the task, each delivering in tricky parts. Hoss is sensational, evoking her character's traumatised fragility in her face but also her body language, then slowly blooming as she re-discovers her husband and the reality of her past. Zehrfeld is always conflicted by what he is doing: desperate yet furious with himself, drawn to this woman he knows cannot be his wife. That intense final scene is all about their faces and they are both immense, giving it an emotional charge which is shattering.
Prior to that the film is a noir and appropriately tense. Berlin is all shadows and bombed-out houses, off-duty US soldiers and furtive encounters in alleyways. Petzold prominently references Eyes Without A Face and Vertigo. And yet the holocaust gives his film a sting unlike either of those films, best manifested in the character of Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), working to get herself and Nelly to Palestine and sadly tracking down the evidence that the rest of their friends died in the camps. Her fate is cold and shocking, and it seems to foreshadow that ending, where Nelly's serial number tattoo is seen for the first time.

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