Life is a bombed-out, soulless cabaret in Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix,” a haunting portrait of identity, loss and the search for answers in post-WWII Berlin. The sixth teaming of Petzold and his leading-lady muse, the extraordinary Nina Hoss, finds the duo once again refracting the social and political complexities of 20th-century Germany through the prism of American genre films — here, specifically, the rich strain of doppelganger psychodramas (“A Woman’s Face,” “Vertigo,” “Seconds”) that hinged on the immutable power of the human face. Like those movies, “Phoenix” demands a certain generous suspension of disbelief that may be more than some audiences are willing to muster. Still, this not-quite ghost story reps the fiercely talented Petzold’s most broadly accessible work to date, and should reach his largest international audience. IFC releases the film domestically via its Sundance Selects label later this year.
Petzold, who started directing in television in the mid-1990s, only began to garner significant international attention with his ‘80s-era East German period piece, “Barbara,” which won best director at the Berlin Film Festival and represented Germany in the 2012 foreign-language Oscar race. For “Phoenix,” he reteams the stars of that film, the glacially beautiful Hoss and the gruffly handsome Ronald Zehrfeld (who suggests a Teutonic Russell Crowe) as another kind of doomed couple torn apart by the times in which they live. Hoss plays the Jewish Nelly, who makes it out of Auschwitz alive, but with a badly disfigured face (the result of a gunshot wound). Accompanied by her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a clerk in the Hall of Jewish Records, she travels to a clinic for reconstructive surgery, where she’s told that she can choose any sort of face she wants (including that of Jewish Austrian screen siren Hedy Lamarr) — a new face for a new Germany, as it were. But Nelly stubbornly insists that she wants to look just as she did before the war, when she was a popular chanteuse, and married to Johnny (Zehrfeld), a German piano player who may have betrayed Nelly to the Nazis to save his own skin.
In the smoky nightclub that gives the movie its title (along with a certain mythological echo), Nelly locates Johnny, now working as a busboy, but he fails to recognize her. Or, rather, he notes a certain passing resemblance, enough to make him think that this new Nelly might prove useful to him in claiming the “dead” Nelly’s family inheritance. This, admittedly, is where some viewers will part ways with “Phoenix,” for once she’s out of her mummy-like bandages, Hoss appears onscreen with only the lightest of disfiguring makeup (mostly in the form of two dark bruises around her eyes), her cheekbones so sharp and her gaze so penetrating as to defy the idea anyone could mistake Nelly for someone other than herself.
But by the same turn, Petzold, who adapted the screenplay with longtime collaborator Harun Farocki from a 1961 novel by French writer Hubert Monteilhet (previously filmed by director J. Lee Thompson as “Return From the Ashes,” with Maximilian Schell and Ingrid Thulin), doesn’t invite a strictly literal interpretation. This is, after all, Germany in the immediate wake of the Holocaust (a moment rarely explored by movies, save for Liliana Cavani’s notorious “The Night Porter”), which continues to envelop everyone and everything like a surreal fog. So while Nelly tries, futilely, to reclaim a lost past, Johnny runs just as far in the opposite direction, seeking to wipe the historical record clean of what he was really up to during the war.
Against that push-pull tension, Petzold sets the character of Lene, who dreams of emigrating to Palestine together with Nelly and starting life anew — a goal that proves easier stated than realized for both parties. And it’s this clashing of ideologies and coping strategies that interests Petzold the most, far more than the inheritance plot and the question of when — if ever — Johnny will come to discover Nelly’s true identity. Yet, because Petzold is such a gifted storyteller, with the lean, driving narrative sense of the film noir masters, he also keeps those twists and turns chugging smoothly along, building to a climax so expertly orchestrated that one imagines he started with it in mind and worked the rest of the movie backward from there. (To a not-insignificant extent, this other tension, between the demands of classical narrative and the messiness of real life, is also one of “Phoenix’s” concerns.)
As Nelly, Hoss once again plays a game of emotional inches, every tremor of brow, cheeks and chin open to at least a dozen possible readings; is there another actress onscreen today who does so much while seeming to do so little? Somewhere in that magic act, Hoss shows us the part of Nelly that still loves Johnny, no matter his culpability in her fate, and that maybe always will. It’s a particularly impressive feat given that Zehrfeld doesn’t invite much sympathy on his own, playing Johnny (very well) as a survivalist whose moral compass reliably points toward the path of least resistance. The great surprise of “Phoenix,” however, is Kunzendorf, a TV actress relatively new to movies, who in a few scenes makes Lene into perhaps the film’s most tragic character — a woman profoundly haunted by the specter of the war and by long-suppressed desires, a less sinister Mrs. Danvers to Hoss’ Rebecca. Whenever she is onscreen, you can’t take your eyes off her.
As in “Barbara,” the period detailing of Petzold and production designer K.D. Gruber is vivid and meticulous without seeming florid or unduly fetishized by cinematographer Hans Fromm’s widescreen frames — a rare period movie that pulls you into a living, breathing world rather than suffocating you with decor. (Shooting was done on sets and actual locations in the Brandenburg region, with some additional work in Wroclaw, Poland.) Composer Stefan Will’s mellow jazz score (heavy on plucked upright bass) strikes just the right woozy, melancholic feel, as does the repeated use of Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s gorgeous torch song, “Speak Low” — an apt title for Petzold’s own beautifully restrained approach to melodrama.