In Hiroshi Teshigahara’s mysterious and metaphysical The Face of Another (1966), notions of identity both personal and national are explored through the story of man whose face is irrevocably scarred in a terrible accident. The indelible image of his bandaged head is brought to mind in the opening reel of Christian Petzold’s latest offering, another interested in the rebirth of nation after the Second World War, his Glasgow Film Festival offering Phoenix (2014). Built around a devastated and devastating central performance by the director’s muse Nina Hoss – who gained rave reviews for his last feature, Barbara (2012) – Petzold’s Phoenix is a high-concept premise executed as a heart-wrenching character piece.
The woman in the bandages is Nelly (Hoss), a Jew returning to Berlin having survived the horrors of Auschwitz, but in need of extensive facial reconstruction. She refuses the offer of a completely new face, as well as a fresh start in Haifa. Like the eponymous mythical symbol of renewal, she needs to rise from the ashes herself, but when the bandages are removed, the doctors were only able to make her look like herself to an extent. When she finally locates her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) in the ravaged city, he recognises her only as a woman who vaguely resembles his dead wife. When she doesn’t reveal her true identity, he offers her a proposition – to pose as his deceased spouse in order to help him claim her substantial inheritance. It’s a fascinating central conceit that sets up an eerie and measured chamber piece.
Hoss is fabulous in the lead role, conveying the scars deep trauma beneath her restraint. Ever torn between straining to hear Johnny’s love for her in his voice – when reminiscing – and coming to terms with what her country was able to do to her. Her notion of self is malleable and uncertain; “I no longer exist” she says at one stage to the only friend who knows her true identity (Nina Kunzendorf). Where The Face of Another sought to express the psyche of a Japan trying to define its new identity amidst guilt and confusion, so Nelly represents a Jewish race mournfully reaching for the past whilst desperately trying to forget it. Cinematographer Hans Fromm shoots in a rich classical style in which colours are vivid though the palette is muted, calling to mind Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s own tale of a woman forging a path in post-war Germany, The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979). The scale of Petzold’s story is much smaller of course, despite its far larger allegorical scope, but no less powerful, particularly when it crescendos on one of the most electrifying final scenes in recent memory. Such a finale as led some to tend to hyperbole, but even without it Phoenix is a beautiful and harrowing in equal measure.
The full Glasgow Film Festival 2015 programme, ticketing details and more can be viewed at glasgowfilm.org.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson