dir. Christian Petzold
written by: Christian Petzold, Harun Farocki
starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf
3.75 out of 4 stars
Last year, Poland’s Academy Award winning Ida captivated audiences retracing the life of a young woman displaced due to the Holocaust. The quiet film with beautifully shot black-and-white photography won acclaim for its brief but powerful screenplay and powerful performances. This year, Germany unleashed Phoenix, similar fair with splashes more color. Nelly has survived a concentration camp but has lost her entire family and been horrible marred in the process. After reconstructive surgery, Nelly becomes adamant about reconnecting with her husband Johnny despite the accusations of his ill deeds by her friend and caregiver Lene.
Barely resembling her previous self and lacking those who can remind her history, Nelly is a figure devoid of true identity. Reteaming with her Barbara helmer Christian Petzold, Nina Hoss’s eye are lost in this unfamiliar postwar world. The people she knows are almost all gone, her husband demonstrates his least favorable qualities, and she’s clearly absent from the hell she’s encountered. Hoss is hesitant and quiet with bursts of relief when she’s required to act. An observer in a world in which even her relations seem hazardous; she is like a guest at the zoo realizing the exhibits have an open door policy. Traipsing amongst the shelled remains of the city, her steps and attention bounce with the anxiety she portrays on screen. Hoss is a revelation!
In a role I would often regard with ambivalence but in which I found immense nuance, Ronald Zehrfeld teeters between malicious and emotionally damaged as her husband of questionable morals. His anger is measured, more terse than tough. His scheming, though worrisome, is peculiarly heart wrenching. Where the conniving male lover role usually goes so wrong, he dials it back for a distraught but hurried conman.
Countering Zehrfeld is the well-meaning but similarly suspect Lene, as inhabited by Nina Kunzendorf. Her cold eyes betray the helpful words tumbling from her stern mouth. Flanking Nelly with concerned control, it’s curious whether Nelly should trust this woman’s unsubstantiated warnings; it’s a friendship parable.
Director and cowriter Christian Petzold, adapting this story from a French novel with Harun Farocki, traces Nelly’s reemerging from the concentration camp to postwar Germany with scepticism surrounding every character. The streets are dangerous with the instability that followed, and this spreads to the individuals remaining for Nelly to seek. Each character must be tiptoed around as they are all deceptive in their own way. This story’s true power comes from the beauty pulled from lead Nina Hoss. Every moment on screen, she is framed with indelible impact on the presence of this actress. One can not ignore the fear and uncertainty behind her expressions. Placing her is a shadow, only tracing her outline with rear lighting, this phoenix is but a shadow of her former life, and day by day, she approaches rebirth. The winning combination of actresses and directors who love them is a pairing that can always be appreciated.
With the prime production and costume design, precise cinematography, and sharp editing, the movie is pulled together as a gorgeous work of rediscovering oneself and deciphering others’ motives. Reflections of the after effects of genocide are rarely documented in film, particularly compared to the lead up and actual events, but this film finds the power behind the circumstances while combining the tension of the unknown.