A film that burns as brightly as its mythical namesake
No, before you ask, this is not a film about the bearded woman of Eurovision infamy. Instead it is a subtle examination of one woman’s survival after being released from a concentration camp. My choice of words is key here, as there was no life after the imaginable horrors of the Holocaust – surviving not living. All the characters retain an expression of shock, of disbelief, unable to process the past few years of devastation. Nothing and no-one is black or white, all lines are blurred. This theme is replicated in the narrative – the audience must piece together what they are seeing and are left to establish meaning for themselves.
It is June 1945. Nelly, a young German woman whose face has been horrifically disfigured from her time in the camp, returns home. What was once home at least. She is accompanied by Lene, a close friend from the pre-war days, who is by her side as she endures facial surgery to reconstruct her face. Nelly is warned that it will be impossible for the surgeon to restore her face to as it was before. As she slowly starts to heal she struggles to comprehend how her face and her life has changed. Her sense of identify has been lost so, against Lene’s warnings of concerns, she seeks out her centre – her husband Johnny – at the Jazz bar she thinks he’ll be playing at, Phoenix. Johnny is the love of Nelly’s life, believing that finding him will restore some sense of normality, especially as her entire family has been murdered in the Holocaust. Johnny is convinced that his wife, too, is dead. So, when Nelly finally tracks him down, he recognizes nothing but an unnerving resemblance and doesn’t believe it could really be her. Hoping to secure her family’s inheritance, Johnny suggests to Nelly that she take on the identity of his late wife. Nelly agrees: therefore becoming her own imposter. She wants to know whether Johnny loved her – and whether he betrayed her. Nelly wants her old life back – but is this blinding her to the truth?
The plot of this film is pure melodrama, of desperation and devastation, more preposterous than realist. Yet somehow, in it’s execution, it’s incredibly and beautifully un-melodramatic. With aspects of an Hitchcockian thriller – think the doppelganger aspect of ‘Vertigo’ combined with the noir of ‘Suspicion’ and the ambiguity of ‘Rebecca – the film is an almost contradictory bleak yet hopeful examination of human trauma. As we watch Johnny train Nelly in how to be Nelly (unbeknownst to Jonny that it is his wife he is actually training) it starts to become clear who is manipulating who. Both Johnny and Nelly have clear motivations – Johnny wanting to train this strange woman to gain the large inheritance, Nelly wanting to be trained into the woman she once as – yet the levels of deceit make a happy ending seem unlikely. The tension builds to a truly captivating and stunningly executed finale. A must watch!