Over the past 15 years German filmmaker Christian Petzold and his muse Nina Hoss have been crafting an oeuvre of austere thrillers to rival the best, and theirs is one of the greatest director-actor partnerships in cinema today. Petzold continues to finetune a consistently effective formula: slow-building character studies with Hitchcockian suspense and noirish atmosphere which ruminate on Germany’s past and present — Yella (2007) was a surreal meditation on post-reunification capitalism; Jerichow (2008) addressed the Turkish diaspora via The Postman Always Rings Twice; and their best film, Barbara (2012), immersed us in the paranoia and desperation of life under the Iron Curtain. Their sixth collaboration, Phoenix, is a dark melodrama which delves further into Germany’s chequered history and finds the pair at the peak of their considerable powers.
Set in the aftermath of WWII, the film centres on Nelly (Hoss), a disfigured Auschwitz survivor in need of reconstructive facial surgery. In the opening scene she is being transported across the border into West Germany by a friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), when they are stopped by American forces. Covered in bandages and cowering in the passenger seat, her frightful appearance brings to mind the victims of Georges Franju’s iconic Eyes Without a Face. Once her face has been restored to something like its former self, Nelly’s first and only impulse is to search the ruins of Berlin for her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), a burly pianist who might have betrayed her to the Nazis. Believing Nelly to be dead, Johnny doesn’t recognise this frail woman as the glamourous nightclub singer he married, but rather sees in her likeness an opportunity to grab Nelly’s now considerable inheritance.
Vertigo is a major inspiration here, as Johnny obsessively coaches “Esther” on how to impersonate the Nelly of his memory — with her duplicitously playing along, motivated by equal parts love and suspicion. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s post-WWII masterwork The Marriage of Maria Braun is another obvious touchstone, while the classic film noir blocking and unabashedly implausible premise recall any number of suspenseful 1940s melodramas, yet the film remains quintessentially a Petzold creation. His characteristic restraint has always separated his work from his influences, and this is another fascinating study of identity and the German character — Petzold’s twin obsessions — with Nelly’s damaged face and subsequent makeover a clear allegory for post-WWII Germany. When former friends and neighbours encounter Nelly again, they act defensively guilty or willfully ignorant of the Holocaust; as Johnny explains midway through, “No one will ask about the camp.”
Hoss is a master of quiet intensity, internalising everything yet communicating multitudes with just her steely eyes, and she carries the film with a mesmerising turn that might be her best yet. Barbara co-star Zehrfeld does well with a prickly character, although Kunzendorf’s Lene — the only other significant part in this chamber piece, with some compelling points to make about Jewish statehood and forgiveness — is unfortunately a little shortchanged by the script.
After 90 minutes of simmering tension and intrigue, Phoenix climaxes dramatically with the most powerful knockout ending in recent memory. So perfect is its execution, in fact, that you will be too busy picking up your jaw from the floor to remember any misgivings you might have had prior. Speak low.