Christian Petzold‘s Phoenix sees its official world premiere in Toronto in a few weeks, but it’ll also be opening in Germany on September 25. With the first reviews appearing now, I thought I’d translate a few passages. First, though, let’s note that this loose adaptation of Hubert Monteilhet’s 1961 novel Le Retour des cendres is one of the last projects Harun Farocki worked on before passing away so suddenly just over a week ago. Jens Hinrichsen looks back on an interview he conducted with Petzold for Monopol in 2012 as Barbara was opening in German theaters: “We’ve known each other a long time. All of our stories come from our conversations. It’s the most wonderful thing when you’ve got an idea and you go out walking or meet up in the kitchen, drink coffee and smoke, and each of us digs into our books and remembers this or that. We’re gold diggers, spinning a tale. I could never write alone.”
Phoenix is set in Berlin in 1945 and, as a way in, here’s a good chunk of the synopsis from The Match Factory: “Nelly Lenz [Nina Hoss] is a concentration camp survivor who has been left severely injured with a disfigured face. Lene Winter [Nina Kunzendorf], who works for the Jewish Agency, takes her to Berlin. Following facial re-construction surgery, Nelly begins the search for her husband Johnny [Ronald Zehrfeld]. When she finally does find him, Johnny does not recognize her. Nevertheless he approaches her with a proposal. Since she resembles his wife, whom he believes to be dead, he asks her to help him claim his wife’s considerable inheritance. Nelly agrees, and becomes her own doppelgänger—she needs to know if Johnny ever loved her, or if he betrayed her.”
Most reviewers note that Phoenix falls into the subgenre known as the Trümmerfilm, most often translated as “rubble film,” set in Germany in the immediate aftermath of World War II. At critic.de, Till Kadritzke not only cites the most famous example, Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero (1948), he also notes that Nina Hoss fairly recently starred in one, Max Färberböck’s A Woman in Berlin (2008). But with her “presence, as engaging as it is ephemeral, her penetrating eyes and the way cinematographer Hans Fromm frames her, she doesn’t so much remind us of the Trümmerfrau in A Woman in Berlin as she pulls Phoenix into the ghostly universe of Christian Petzold. ‘Germany 1945,’ a setting so thoroughly mined by countless big budget productions and TV events, becomes, then, the sort of cinema that shuns the common conventions of the portrayal of reality. Petzold approaches 1945 as he does 1980 [in Barbara]—to tell a small story. This is a daring move, but a necessary one. Because we can’t surrender this field to the big stories of resistance, war and Hitler’s psyche without putting up a fight.”
Kadritzke’s excellent review then addresses, among other things, the overt nod to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Petzold and Farocki’s palpable anger at the politics of other German films he calls Versöhnungskino, a cinema of reconciliation or even atonement. Clara Friedman’s left a comment calling the piece a “terrific text on a mediocre film.” While the other reviews that have so far appeared are, to put it mildly, positive, she’s not alone. There are two ratings at Letterboxd. One’s 4.5/5, but the other’s 1/5.
“For Nelly, rehearsing with Johnny, slipping into the role of a woman she isn’t supposed to know, requires a constant suppression of her feelings,” writes Bianka Piringer at Spielfilm.de. “This emotional tension gives the film a unique, artificial suspense…. The absurd masquerade opens a wide range of possible choices for Nina Hoss, who, once again, is outstanding. None of the rest of the cast approaches her level of her haunting, nuanced performance. In general, the figures here seem to be wandering across a stage as if in a dream. This impressively reflects that moment of emptiness, both historical and personal, an awakening to the rubble of one’s own life.” Rating: 4/5.
At cinestatic.de, Peter Gutting argues that Phoenix flies in the face of what one might expect from the Berlin School in that it “grabs the viewer right from the first minute.” As with Barbara, Petzold “approaches German history in much the same way that Rainer Werner Fassbinder did: with strong women at the center of a screenplay in which individual destinies are as vital as the deep research and the emphasis on social conditions.” Rating: 8/10.
For Peter Osteried at Kritiken.de, Phoenix is “shot through with an ever-present trauma.” Rating: 4.5/5.
Meantime, Kate Murphy‘s had a quick chat with Hoss for the New York Times. Hoss has been reading John Williams’s Stoner, listening to Manic Street Preachers and watching John Cassavetes. “The movies he made, the work he left behind, have been a big influence for my work.”