Year Released: 2015
Directed by: Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf
(PG-13, 98 min.)
“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” Henry David Thoreau
It is low key and in German with subtitles. No thrilling car chases, sex, or profanity. But the way this film deals with the issues of identity, betrayal, and obsession grabs you in a way that haunts and holds on like no other.
Much of that is due to the mesmerizing performance of Nina Hoss, who plays Nelly Lenz, a Berlin jazz singer who has just made it out of the Nazi concentration camps. Barely. A bullet to her face has not killed her, just made her appear dead, buried under a heap of bodies. We first see her bandaged face as she huddles in a car at the checkpoint for Ally-occupied Berlin just as the war has ended.
She seems an alien creature to us at first, her head wrapped in bandages as she undergoes reconstructive surgery. Her zombie like gate and loose hospital gown complete the picture, but Nelly has a force beneath the tattered trappings. While the doctor tries to cajole her into a new face modeled after current public beauties, she holds fast to looking like herself.
It is sometimes safer not to look like your old self, he tells her. And then admits that even if he tries, she will never look the same.
As soon as the bandages come off, she has her devoted friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) take her to her old home, now reduced to a pile of rubble.
Like Nelly, Berlin, does not look like its old self. It is the post war Berlin framed so expertly in Carol Reed’s exquisite The Third Man. The city is a maze of crumbling buildings and dark alleys with just a whiff of a defiant decadence lurking in its neon lit cabarets.
One such cabaret in the American sector is the Phoenix, certainly an allusion to the mythical bird that dies in flames only to arise anew from its ashes. With a dark veil hiding her still bruised face, Nelly risks the dark streets to go there because she hopes to find her husband Johnny at the piano. But he is not at the piano, instead a mere busboy.
Ronald Zehrfeld’s Johnny does not have the traditional leading man looks, but there is a magnetism there, a sort of cavalier charm like that of the young Orson Welles in the already mentioned The Third Man. Instead of the haunting, hollow zither tune from that 1949 classic, a tin parody of joy as thin as man’s hope for peace, in Phoenix we have the German club singers doing their best impression of American jazz. But with the lyrics in German it is somehow not the same.
Because the surgery has altered her, Johnny does not recognize his wife, but she looks enough like her to intrigue him. Even as her friend Lene warns her against him – he has betrayed Nelly, she insists – Nelly cannot help herself. She is drawn to Johnny like a moth to the flame.
We are reminded of Jimmy Stewart’s similar obsession in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece, Vertigo as Johnny insists that Nelly dye her hair and fashion her makeup to look like the wife he believes to be dead. Of course, we know she is no such thing, that she is standing there right in front of him, but Nelly is willing to go along with him, even as he plots a scheme that shows him both self-serving and callous.
We all know Nelly has been a jazz singer before the war, but we do not hear her sing until the final scene. At first she is hesitant. Johnny must play the opening at least 3 times until she ultimately begins to sing Kurt Weills’ Speak Low. As she begins, Nelly is indeed speaking low, a throaty kind of whisper more like talking. Little by little she gets her full voice back and the haunting quality that Johnny cannot help but recognize.
What Ronald Zehrfeld does in the final scene, with just his facial expression and not a single spoken word is an acting tour de force that few will accomplish in a lifetime.
Not to be missed by discriminating film-goers.
The final riveting scene takes place at a country estate, complete with old friends, the clink of wine glasses, and a loving pledge from her husband Johnny. Nelly sits through everything without a smile, but everyone assumes that to be natural given the recent horrors she has undergone.
While the audience has an inkling of what is really going on behind the enigmatic face, Nelly manages to surprise us nonetheless. The final frame will haunt you.
But let’s forget about that now, and enjoy some delicious German food, this being a cousin of the better-known Weiner schnitzel. Jagerschnitzel adds wonderful sour-cream mushroom gravy.
Pork cutlets are pounded then, breaded, and fried, then topped with a sour cream-mushroom gravy.
1 cup bread crumbs
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 pork steaks or cutlets, pounded thin
1 egg, beaten
1 medium onion, diced
1 (8 ounce) can sliced mushrooms
1 1/2 cups water
1 cube beef bouillon
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 cup sour cream
In a shallow dish, mix together the bread crumbs and flour. Season with salt and pepper. Place the egg in a separate dish. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Dip pork steaks in egg, then coat with the bread crumb mixture. Fry in the hot oil until browned on both sides and cooked through, about 5 minutes per side
Remove the pork to a platter and keep warm. Add onion and mushrooms to the skillet and cook until lightly browned. Pour in water and dissolve the bouillon cube. Simmer for about 20 minutes. Stir together the cornstarch and sour cream; stir into the skillet. Cook over low heat until thickened but do not boil. Spoon over the pork cutlets and serve immediately.