Phoenix, film review: A Berlin thriller with hints of Hitchcock and plenty of plot twists

(12A) Christian Petzold, 98 mins. Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf
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The Independent Culture

Christian Petzold's Phoenix is a darkly melodramatic tale told in a very unmelodramatic fashion. It is a film that you could imagine being made in late 1940s Hollywood with moody lighting and one of those very eerie, very overblown scores that Bernard Herrmann used to write for Hitchcock movies. Petzold's approach, though, is pared-down and naturalistic. It is as if he has decided the story itself is so strange anyway that he doesn't need to over-egg affairs with showy effects and self-conscious camera work.

The German director, who adapted Phoenix from French novel Return from the Ashes, by Hubert Monteilhet, is working again with his regular lead and muse, Nina Hoss. She gives an extraordinarily subtle and sensitive performance in a role that could easily have descended into Marlene Dietrich-style high camp.

Hoss plays Nelly, an Auschwitz survivor badly disfigured by a gunshot wound. She has had reconstructive surgery (she asks to look exactly as she did before) and is seen early on with her face swathed in bandages, as if she is on leave from Georges Franju's surrealistic cult movie Eyes without a Face. When the bandages come off, she is apparently unrecognizable. Her face has heavy bruises. Those who don't know her suspect she may have been the victim of domestic violence.

What Nelly claims sustained her during her time in the camps was her love of her husband, Johnny. If he is alive, she is determined to track him down.

There is a telling line uttered by one of the film's female characters. "You know how men are these days," she says, with matter-of-fact fatalism about the behaviour of Germany's menfolk in the wake of their defeat. In the brave world of the film, the men are too cowed, too sorry for themselves, too embarrassed about the recent Nazi past and too busy trying to survive to worry about such matters as romantic love.


Nelly tracks down Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Her old sweetheart now has a dogsbody job in the Phoenix nightclub. When she comes face to face with him, he looks at her as if she is a stranger. This is hard logically to credit. Johnny would surely be able to identify his wife by her voice, her bearing and by their shared memories. It is here that Petzold's sober film-making style works so effectively. He presents outrageously far-fetched plot twists in such a matter-of-fact style that most audiences are unlikely to question them. There are obvious allegorical elements here: Phoenix can be read as a cautionary tale about German bad faith and self-deception in the post-war era.

Johnny turns out to be venal and opportunistic. He notices that the woman in front of him bears a passing resemblance to his wife. If he can persuade her to impersonate Nelly, he will be able to claim a substantial inheritance. He tells Nelly there will be $20,000 in it for her if she can pretend to be… herself. At first, he isn't at all happy with her efforts. Watching her, it is easy to be reminded of the old story about Elvis Presley entering an Elvis lookalike contest incognito not long before his death – and coming only third. In Johnny's opinion, Nelly just doesn't look right.

In one grim sequence, in order to convince the doubting relatives that she is indeed Nelly, Johnny proposes cutting off some of the skin on her arm. (Auschwitz survivors, he tells her, had tattoos on their forearms. As part of her "cover," she needs to pretend that she erased her camp number.) He begins to model and mould her, just as James Stewart did Kim Novak in Hitchcock's Vertigo, giving her clothes and shoes, and inventing a backstory that she has been living in Paris. She tries to tell him that most concentration camp survivors don't return home in glamorous dresses and high heels – but he is having none of it. "The eye make-up is wrong. The walk, too. Everything!"

One can guess what a director such as Paul Verhoeven might have done with this material. The more sensationalist elements would surely have been foregrounded, just as they were in Verhoeven's Black Book (2006). In particular, Verhoeven would have been keen to explore the sexual relationship between the husband and the woman he is paying to pretend to be his wife. Could he have slept with her and not noticed her real identity? This isn't a question Petzold wants to ask. He avoids any prurience and doesn't even pay that much attention to the poverty and destruction in post-war Berlin. We see one or two images of bombed-out buildings and brick-strewn streets. There is a scene set inside the cabaret and a strange, phantasmagoric interlude in which Nelly ventures out on to the streets at nighttime in pursuit of Johnny. However, most of the film is set in interiors.

On the one hand, there is the tastefully decorated borugeois home of Nelly's friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a Jewish Agency employee trying to persuade her to emigrate to Israel. Then, there are Johnny's shabby lodgings.

Phoenix is more a chamber piece than it is a conventional thriller. Petzold is probing away at the nature of love, memory and betrayal. There are layers and layers of deception. Johnny is using Nelly to trick his way into a fortune. Nelly herself is deceiving Johnny. Her motives are inscrutable. Petzold leaves it up to us to decide whether she is clinging to him out of lovelorn desperation or whether her real mission is to work out how deeply he betrayed her.

Hoss is an extraordinarily expressive and soulful actress, able to convey her character's fragility and fear as well as her determination to confront her past. Petzold trains his camera on her intently, determined to register every tiny change in her emotions. As more wartime lies are exposed, the real drama here is less in the outrageous plot twists than in the quiet but searing intensity of Hoss's performance.