Phoenix (2014, Christian Petzold)

Creating a war film seems almost a rite of passage for the established auteur peddling for serious appreciation, perhaps especially so for a German one. Like turning to monochrome, tackling the Second World War suggests a director seeking to file his ‘masterpiece.’ A troublesome adjective, and potentially ruinous directorial intent. Thankfully, despite complex themes and serious content, Christian Petzold’s latest is remarkably restrained.

In Petzold’s mood setting opening, Nelly (Petzold’s muse NIna Hoss) an Auschwitz survivor, returns to Berlin to attempt to heal her psychological and physical wounds. After reconstructive surgery and a few days hidden behind a _Eyes Without a Face _style mask, Nelly emerges into society, herself again but not quite. She quickly stumbles upon husband Johnny (Ronald Zerhfeld) but is not recognisable to him.

Here begins the crux of Petzold’s riveting Hitchcockian tale of mistaken identity, and potential point of departure for some. Johnny asks Nelly to pretend to be the wife he believes to be long dead, in order to cash in on her inheritance. Despite knowledge that he likely betrayed her, (Petzold is necessarily ambiguous on this) so desperate is Nelly to be around her husband, she agrees and begins to learn to be herself, ironically being told repeatedly she is “doing it wrong”. Thus, Petzold uses the somewhat hazardous central gambit of mistaken identity as both a metaphor for national restoration (the titular bird here rises from the rubble of Berlin’s destruction), and a starting point for a moving story about the difficulty of recovering a sense of self after psychological decimation.

This description suggests a film big on dramatic spectacle, but Petzold plays things in a commendably low key through to an ending that delivers real, unexpected emotional heft. The script, penned by Petzold in collaboration with the late Harun Farocki (an expert in Germany’s history, politics and national consciousness), is smart, subtle and sustains intrigue whilst skilfully evading silliness at every turn. The cinematography from Hans Fromm is classical and the lighting atmospheric, and the production design features excellent period detail that brings to life each scenario whilst matching Petzold’s minimalist directorial style. Both leads are excellent, Hoss carrying the weight of an entire people’s suffering in her expressions, and Zernfeld a national guilt in his. If film is a collaborative process, Phoenix is a prime example of this, all elements gelling under Petzold’s ever more proficient guiding hand.

Though the somewhat slippery story requires a (large) leap of faith, audiences able to get on board with Petzold’s central idea will find a precise, measured film that operates on several different registers (political, historical or psychological, suspense or romance) whilst holding down a consistency of tone and aesthetic. Petzold’s mournful new_ _film will hopefully give Petzold, now seven films down the line, the wider international recognition he deserves.

*★★*

Phoenix played In Competition at the 62nd San Sebastian International Film Festival. This review was originally posted in NISA MASA's San Sebastian Nisimazine.

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