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A Holocaust Survivor Searches For Her Past In Christian Petzold's 'Phoenix'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

The German director Christian Petzold won the Berlin Film Festival's top prize - the Silver Bear - for his 2012 film "Barbara," which starred Nina Hoss as an East German doctor constantly monitored by the Stasi, the secret police. His new film, "Phoenix," also stars Hoss, this time as a Jewish ex-nightclub singer who survived a Nazi concentration camp, despite being shot in the face. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The tall, blonde, German actress Nina Hoss has one of the world's most riveting screen presences. I've heard she's wonderful on stage, too, and she's an opera singer. Hoss had a small but intense part as a devoted colleague of Philip Seymour Hoffman in "A Most Wanted Man." But her best-received performance was as a persecuted East German doctor in the 2012 film "Barbara," directed by Christian Petzold. She unites with Petzold for the sixth time in the morbidly romantic drama "Phoenix" as Nelly Lenz, a former nightclub singer and concentration camp survivor. At the start of the film, she returns to a rubbled, postwar Berlin, her face mutilated by a bullet meant to kill her, in search of her non-Jewish husband, Johnny.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EDELSTEIN: The movie's running musical motif is Kurt Weill's yearning "Speak Low," lyrics by Ogden Nash. Speak low when you speak love; our summer day withers away too soon, too soon. It's thumbed by a bass in the opening scene when her Jewish friend Lene drives Nelly, heavily bandaged, through a checkpoint manned by Americans on the German border, and an officer demands to see her face. We don't see it, but his shamefully murmured apology tells us much.

In Berlin, a plastic surgeon does a remarkable job. She emerges very beautiful, but she's not, in her own mind, Nelly - physically or spiritually. Though Lene insists that Johnny gave her up to the Nazis to save his own life, Nelly is sure that Johnny will bring her back to her old self. She finds him quickly, bussing tables in the American sector, but he doesn't recognize her. He's sure his wife is dead. He does, though, regard this woman as a godsend. He thinks she looks enough like his wife to be able - with the right clothes and hair and walk and way of speaking - to pass herself off as Nelly and collect Nelly's substantial inheritance. And the dazed Nelly allows him to coach her. She clearly wants to tell him who she really is, but also to wait for him to figure it out.

The comparisons to "Vertigo," where James Stewart dressed and molded Kim Novak into the image of a lost love, are inevitable. And director Petzold's style, in this film and others, owes something to Hitchcock. But this is, of course, a reverse angle on "Vertigo" - a female ghost from a massacred people in search of her past. The question is, will she rise from the ashes?

"Phoenix" is potent, permeated with pain, though sometimes frustrating in Johnny's obtuseness. But Ronald Zehrfeld, who acted opposite Hoss in "Barbara," is extraordinary. He looks a bit here like Oliver Reed - broodish but with a softness you think must be in there somewhere. You know if he'd stop conniving and really look at Nelly he'd see her, but he doesn't want to look. "Phoenix" is all Nina Hoss, though. She's different than I've seen her - the opposite of self-possessed. She seems disconnected from her own body. She resembles Jeanne Moreau here, with a downturned mouth and thick underlip and with dark bags under her eyes. But those eyes shine with a sort of glassy hope. It's heartbreaking when Johnny tells her that her walk is all wrong, that she's nothing like Nelly and can't pull it off. What makes "Phoenix" finally so devastating is that it's not Johnny who needs to see her. It's she who needs to see what he is and find her place in this ravaged, postwar world.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPEAK LOW")

LOTTE LENYA: (Singing) Speak low when you speak love. Our summer day withers away too soon, too soon. Speak low when you speak love. Our moment is swift. Like ships adrift, we're swept apart too soon. Speak low. Darling, speak low. Love is a spark lost in the dark too soon, too soon. I feel wherever I go that tomorrow is near. Tomorrow is here and always too soon.

DAVIES: On Monday's show, Terry speaks with filmmaker and comic Bobcat Goldthwait and his friend, comedian Barry Crimmins. Goldthwait's new documentary is about Crimmins, who founded two influential comedy clubs in Boston. Crimmins was sexually abused as a child and later made it his mission to track down pedophiles operating in Internet chat rooms. Hope you can join us then. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.