The master of contemporary German cinema returns with a gripping Hitchcockian thriller.
December 03, 2015
Early in Phoenix, Nelly (Nina Hoss) wakes up after facial reconstruction surgery and follows another bandaged woman into an office. There, she spots a noticeboard featuring a few photos from her past — and discovers that she's not only trailing someone in a hallway, but confronting the ghost of her former self. Yes, the film tells a tale of duality and doppelgangers, but it's not quite what that description might lead you to expect. Set amidst the rubble of post-war Berlin, it is haunted by the difficulties of moving forward when the past remains ever-present.
Of course, getting a makeover, righting previous wrongs, seeking revenge and starting life anew are all familiar film tropes. Luckily, there's little that's routine or commonplace about the way writer-director Christian Petzold and his frequent co-scribe Harun Farocki bring Hubert Monteilhet's 1961 detective novel The Return from the Ashes to the screen. Their effort is part atmospheric drama, part slow-burning thriller. Phoenix is composed and compelling, rather than pulpy or clichéd. In other hands, it might've been exaggerated and cheesy; here, it's understated and moving.
WWII is over and cabaret singer Nelly has survived not just a German concentration camp but a bullet to the head, though her nearest and dearest — including her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who might've sold her out to the Nazis — think otherwise. Despite her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) urging her to escape her troubles and move to Palestine, Nina is determined to return home. Alas, when husband and wife cross paths at the nightclub that gives the film its name, Johnny doesn't recognise her; instead, he thinks she merely resembles Nelly, and asks for her assistance in obtaining his wife's hefty inheritance.
Forget Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, and Wes Anderson and Bill Murray: Petzold and Hoss are this generation's quintessential director-star duo. Here they reteam for their sixth film together and once again make movie magic, conjuring up strong reminders of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo in the process. His choices — the smoke and shadows that linger around Nelly, the repeated sounds of the song 'Speak Low', the gradual build to a quietly powerful ending — are masterful. Her performance — conveying so much conflict with little more than a look or a gesture — is equally as commanding.
Indeed, taking your eyes off of Hoss proves close to impossible, though Phoenix is a polished affair all round. Zehrfeld, who also co-starred in Petzold and Hoss' last pairing, Barbara, is equally hypnotic in a far less sympathetic but just as complicated role. Together, they help convey two sides of a nation struggling with its identity in the aftermath of a great tragedy — a recurrent topic for Petzold. That's not a cause for concern; his characters might be toying with the past, but his layered, lingering film does much, much more than just recreate his former glories.