German filmmaker Christian Petzold’s engrossing ‘Phoenix’ is a slow-burning film-noir drama. How does one deal with tragic events that change your life forever? It’s a somber mood piece set immediately after the Holocaust in postwar Berlin. It’s a story of lost love and lost identity for not only the heroine but for an entire country trying to recover from the devastation of World War II. Every aspect of the film from the haunting music, the lush cinematography and the performances from Petzold’s frequent collaborators Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld are stunning. ‘Phoenix’ is a wonderfully crafted narrative that feels like an ode to Hitchcock’s classic ‘Vertigo’ as it touches on themes of obsession, denial and control.
Petzold is a thoughtful director that lets the scenes unfold organically. As the story opens, we see the face of Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) driving a passenger covered in bandages across a checkpoint toward Berlin. The woman’s face has been badly damaged but she is a survivor of a concentration camp. The passenger is Nelly Lenz (Hoss), a German-Jewish nightclub singer that was married to a dashing piano player named Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). They were happily married until one day Johnny is called in for questioning by the SS. The burning question is whether Johnny turned in his wife of Jewish descent over to the Nazis to save his own hide? Lene knows it was Johnny but Nelly stubbornly refuses to believe it is her beloved husband. Nelly is so obsessed with taking back her life that she insists to the plastic surgeon, “I want to look exactly like I used to.” When she returns to her shattered life, she sadly tells Lene, “I no longer exist.”
As Nelly tries to start a new life, she cannot resist searching for her lost love Johnny. The scenes of war torn Berlin are haunting. Through the rubble of the bombed-out city, there is an oasis in the form of a nightclub with red neon lights called ‘Phoenix.’ It’s in the nightclub where Nelly finds Johnny working as a busboy. The scene where Nelly takes off her hat and makes eye contact with Johnny for the first time is heartbreaking. Johnny walks by her like she is a ghost. Hoss delivers an incredible performance. We feel the pain that she endures as the film masterfully explores the psychological toll of war and trying to regain one’s identity. Nelly spends a good deal of time trying to figure out if Johnny betrayed her. When they meet, Johnny devises a plan to cash in on her resemblance to his deceased wife. He knows that if this woman can pretend to be Nelly that they can split a huge inheritance left by her family. Nelly agrees to play along with the charade. It’s sad because the more time they spend together, the more she realizes that Johnny did in fact turn her in to the Nazis.
Petzold’s last film 2012’s ‘Barbara’ also stars Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld. It was a German entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar but didn’t make the short list. Once you’ve seen Hoss’ stirring performance, you will want to delve into Petzold’s filmography. In ‘Phoenix,’ Hoss goes through so many emotions that it becomes clear that no matter how hard she tries, she is a ghost that can never bring back the past to the way it was. This is an artsy film that gives us rich character studies into people’s motivations during traumatic events. ‘Phoenix’ is a haunting film by a true auteur. It is definitely a must-see for cinephiles that enjoy original foreign films. It opens at The Flicks on 8/28 and an art house theater near you. Check out IFC Films official trailer https://youtu.be/LjJKLatvKSA.