Review by Conor Bateman
Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, which grapples with identity and guilt in the aftermath of World War II, runs with a plot that feels almost like an inversion of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. In that film, James Stewart’s Scottie tries to transform Kim Novak’s Judy back into the false Madeleine. In Phoenix, it’s a touch more complicated.
Nelly, a Jewish concentration camp survivor who has had facial reconstruction surgery, returns to Berlin to seek out her husband Johnny. He presumed she died in the war and does not recognise her. He has been trying to get his hands on Nelly’s inheritance, though, and thinks he could persuade others that this woman is his wife. Being made to play a version of herself is a strange allure for Nelly; still in love with her husband, and feeling like this deception is a way to start their love affair anew, she accepts his directions on how to become the Nelly of his memory. At the same time, she starts to become suspicious of his involvement in her arrest.
Phoenix is Petzold’s fifth collaboration with actress Nina Hoss. Barbara (2012) also focuses on the formation of a new German identity; in that film Hoss played a young doctor in 1980s East Germany sent to a rural facility as punishment for seeking an exit visa. Though she is physically removed from the imposing Berlin Wall, a sense of national division and distrust is still prevalent. Phoenix sees her internalise this division, playing a character playing a version of themselves, someone wanting to excise the war entirely from her memory and return to her idealised version of Berlin in the early 1930s.
Phoenix’s narrative itself is only as potent because of its reflexive and subtly complex screenplay. Written with Petzold’s regular co-writer and former professor, the late Harun Farocki, the film trims down Hubert Monteilhet’s 1961 novel Le Retour des Cendres – the desire to return to a pre-war German society offering rich and uncomfortable political and historical undercurrents.
Cinematographer Hans Fromm captures an ever-present emptiness in both interior and exterior scenes; Nelly’s new and spacious house feels remarkably cold and off-putting, an artificial sense of security and comfort, and she’s drawn to the rubble of her former home and the rubble of her relationships. With its lilting jazz score and gradually increasing tension, the film remains compelling, though it’s in the film’s haunting finale where Petzold truly stuns. It’s a remarkable and ingenious conclusion, and likely the best of any film this festival.