Christian Petzold’s latest drama Phoenix is subtle and suspenseful, and due to one of its major themes – identity is key here – it has been compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, though I was initially reminded of another European work while watching it, namely Daniel Vigne’s Le Retour de Martin Guerre. In that film Gerard Depardieu plays the titular character, who returns home at the end of a war to a village full of people who refuse to acknowledge that he is who he claims to be. In Petzold’s film, which is set in the aftermath of World War II and is loosely based on Hubert Monteilhet’s novel Le Retour des Cendres, it’s just one character who is unable (or refuses) to recognise another, and this serves as a subtle inference that some German people could and would not face-up to their own actions during the war after the Nazis were defeated.
Nina Hoss is excellent as Nelly, a Holocaust survivor who was shot and facially-disfigured at Auschwitz. At the start of Phoenix she is driven back to occupied Berlin, where she undergoes plastic surgery under the watchful eye of close friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf). After surgery Nelly doesn’t look exactly like she used to and is disappointed by her appearance. She discovers that her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) is still alive and working at a nightclub called Phoenix, but Lene warns her off seeing him, claiming that she suspects Johnny was the person who betrayed her to the Nazis. Nelly chooses to ignore the advice, and meets Johnny in the club, but he doesn’t recognise her. However he notices that she does bear a resemblance to his wife, who he presumes is deceased, and he convinces Nelly – now going by the name Esther – to help him claim his wife’s considerable inheritence.
This fascinating premise sets up a thoughtful psychodrama in which the behaviour of all three main characters is unpredictable. Phoenix is a slow-burning, atmospheric film, with Berlin a sea of grey, smashed-up concrete, half-reduced to rubble after heavy bombardment by Allied forces. There’s a strong emphasis on colour, and with its deep, inviting red lights the titular nightclub represents a certain kind of bawdy temptation, looking for all the world like a bordello (which it may well be). It’s an alluring dab of passion and life in an otherwise listless, exhausted city, but the red can of course stand for so much more; it’s interesting to note that a dress Johnny asks Nelly to wear as they act out their charade is the same blood red that dominates the nightclub scenes.
People go to Phoenix to drink and either forget about or block out the recent horrors of war, and it’s almost as if Johnny has spent too long in the club, as he has seemingly wiped memories of his own actions and of his wife’s appearance and mannerisms. He is seemingly unable to see what is directly in front of him, and neither can Nelly, who refuses to acknowledge her husband’s previous betrayal. All three of the principle cast members are excellent, but it’s Hoss – a Petzold regular who never disappoints – that stands out the most, playing Nelly with a kind of shaken, confused and troubled air. The drama here is understated, while Petzold’s film remains tightly-focused throughout, with just two leads and a supporting character appearing for most of the running time. It’s reflective, intriguing and executed with restraint. Sadly co-writer Harun Farocki passed away before Phoenix was released; it’s his second collaboration with Petzold, and the finished film is a fitting end to his long career.
Directed by: Christian Petzold.
Written by: Christian Petzold, Harun Farocki.
Starring: Nina Hoss, Roland Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf.
Cinematography: Hans Fromm.
Editing: Bettina Böhler.
Music: Stefan Will.
Running Time: 98 minutes.