‘Phoenix’: Toronto Review

Phoenix Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Phoenix Still - H 2014

German auteur Christian Petzold delivers another superbly crafted, emotionally resonant vehicle for his fetish star Nina Hoss

Writer-director Christian Petzold’s follow-up to “Barbara” premiered in Toronto

Both a powerful allegory for post-war regeneration and a rich Hitchcockian tale of mistaken identity, Phoenix once again proves that German filmmaker Christian Petzold and his favorite star, Nina Hoss, are clearly one of the best director-actor duos working in movies today. Like their last collaboration, Barbara, this pared-down, classically helmed period piece uses one woman’s harrowing story to explore Germany’s troubled past, though in this case the setting is WWII and the heroine is a concentration camp survivor returning to Berlin in search of her lost husband.

The plot alone would probably make this latest effort worthy enough, but it’s the masterly craftsmanship and performances that reveal Petzold to be at the top of his game, slowly but surely building his narrative towards an absolute knockout of a finale. Why Phoenix wasn’t in Cannes or Venice (no offense, Toronto) is anyone’s guess, as this quietly devastating work deserves to be seen by the widest art house audience possible.

Severely disfigured by a gunshot wound as she made her way out of Auschwitz, former nightclub singer, Nelly (Hoss), arrives back in Berlin in the care of protective friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf). The only survivor of a deported Jewish family, Nelly has inherited enough money to pay for an expensive plastic surgery operation, after which she plans to buy an apartment in Haifa and quit Germany for good.

“A new face is an advantage,” her doctor tells her, and as the days go by and the bandages slowly come off, it’s clear that Nelly – like the majority of her fellow countrymen – will need to be reborn from the ashes of war, becoming a phoenix in a land striving to shift back to normal times.

But the film’s title also refers to a nearby cabaret that services rowdy American G.I.’s, where Nelly starts showing up in search of her husband, the pianist Johnny (the excellent Ronald Zehrfeld, who co-starred in Barbara). That she finds him right away, and that he doesn’t recognize her, is one of several twists that Petzold (who wrote the screenplay in collaboration with the late Harun Farocki) has in store, as the story subtly moves into thriller territory, exploring Nelly’s predicament through the prism of a wrong man-type scenario.

Indeed, Alfred Hitchcock is never too far away (nor is Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, which would be another good title for this movie), and Johnny – who believes his wife is dead – soon hatches a scheme to use his newfound lady friend as a way to claim his spouse’s family fortune, subjecting her to a series of Vertigo-like makeovers in his threadbare basement flat. Forced to become her own imposter under the guise of a husband who may either have loved her or betrayed her, Nelly progressively takes on a role she hasn’t played since the war started: that of herself.

It’s a clever and nuanced scenario, and one that serves as the perfect metaphor for a nation trying to recreate an identity that was dominated for two decades by the Nazis and then bombed to smithereens by the Allied forces. But there are several other layers – at once historical, political and personal – working at once here, and like the gauze Nelly wears throughout the first third of the film, they are gradually peeled away to explore the bare emotional traumas lying beneath.

Playing her greatest role to date, and one that relies on sheer restraint for much of the running time, Hoss channels her character's deep physical and psychological wounds through a series of painstaking gestures, staring out at us from the abyss like a deer caught in the headlights over and over again. As Nelly comes into her own, transforming into the woman who existed before disappearing in the camps, Hoss literally finds a new voice – culminating  in an explosive final scene that's as perfect as they come, as if Petzold had built his entire movie around that one moment.

Working again with cinematographer Hans Fromm and Jerichow production designer K.D. Gruber, the director paints an acute portrait of a world in ruins, relying on only a few set pieces, most of them interiors, to convey Germany’s destitution at the close of the war. It’s an aesthetic that’s closer to the classic Hollywood studio works of the era – Douglas Sirk’s WWII drama A Time to Love and a Time to Die especially comes to mind – asking us to make a certain leap of faith in terms of both story and style, but one that will be rewarded in spades.

Production company: Schramm Film Koerner & Weber
Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf
Director: Christian Petzold
Screenwriter: Christian Petzold, in collaboration with Harun Farocki, based on the novel “Le Retour des cendres” by Hubert Monteilhet
Producers: Florian Koerner von Gustorf
Executive producers: Jacek Gaczkowski, Piotr Strelecki
Director of photography: Hans Fromm
Production designer: K.D. Gruber
Costume designer: Anette Guther
Editor: Bettina Bohler
Composer: Stefan Will
Sales: The Match Factory

No rating, 98 minutes