It wasn’t long after I posted an entry gathering the first reviews of Christian Petzold‘s Phoenix by German critics that someone somewhere began telling those publications to take those reviews down. Now that the film’s seen its official premiere as a Special Presentation in Toronto, let’s go for a second, stickier round.
Let’s begin by noting that, at the AV Club yesterday, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky declared that Phoenix is “the best film I’ve seen so far at TIFF, and one of the best new movies I’ve seen this year.” We’ll get back to him in a moment, but first, let’s have the barest sketch of a setup from Sarah Khan, who’s conducted a lively interview with Petzold for frieze d/e: “Based on Hubert Monteilhet’s novel Le Retour des Cendres (Return from the Ashes, 1961), it is the story of a concentration camp survivor who returns to Berlin in 1945 to find her husband. When they meet he doesn’t recognize her but sees the opportunity in using her to claim his wife’s fortune.” The camp survivor is Nelly Lenz, played by frequent Petzold collaborator Nina Hoss, and her husband, Johnny, is played by Ronald Zehrfeld, who worked with Petzold and Hoss in Barbara.
Now then, back to Ignatiy Vishnevetsky: “As in his earlier films, Petzold underplays the pulpiness of his premise, instead focusing on its complex psychological and emotional undercurrents: Nelly’s tentative suspicion toward Johnny, whose memory she credits with keeping her alive in Auschwitz, but who may have been responsible for sending her there; sequences of Johnny teaching her to behave like her former self, and to imitate a vivaciousness long lost to trauma; the ambiguous discomfort of the scenes where Johnny, a gentile, coaches the woman he doesn’t realize is his Jewish wife on how to pretend to be a Holocaust survivor.”
“Petzold swirls the pot of suspense, revenge and guilt with not only a Hitchcockian but also a Fassbinderian touch,” writes Cinema Scope editor Mark Peranson. “Films don’t get more psychologically complex than this, which was inexplicably rejected by both Cannes and Venice in favor of who the hell knows what. One last note: Petzold collaborated on the script with the great Harun Farocki, who passed away on July 30, and worked with Petzold on his feature scripts dating back to The State I Am In.”
“Petzold appears far less concerned with the usual, futile attempts to explain the behavior of Germans during the war than in studying the manner in which people attempted to rebuild post-Nazi identity,” writes Jake Cole at the House Next Door, “and Hoss’s elliptical performance suggests multitudes of contradictions and insolubility. Petzold also produces some of his most spellbinding images, from noirish scenes of Nelly sneaking around darkened, red-lit alleys searching of Johnny to the Chekhov-defying finale.”
Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter: “Working again with cinematographer Hans Fromm and Jerichow production designer K.D. Gruber, the director paints an acute portrait of a world in ruins, relying on only a few set pieces, most of them interiors, to convey Germany’s destitution at the close of the war. It’s an aesthetic that’s closer to the classic Hollywood studio works of the era—Douglas Sirk’s WWII drama A Time to Love and a Time to Die especially comes to mind—asking us to make a certain leap of faith in terms of both story and style, but one that will be rewarded in spades.” Khan and Petzold talk quite a bit about Sirk, by the way.
Updates, 9/10: “I heard nothing but ecstasy from folks who caught an early screening,” writes Mike D’Angelo at the Dissolve, “and now feel compelled to suggest, gently but firmly, that they’ve mistaken a great final scene for a great movie. A lot depends, perhaps, upon how one feels about films that closely resemble Vertigo—for me, that’s a comparison to be avoided, as it generally does no favors to the film not directed by Hitchcock.”
Update, 9/12: Sundance Selects has picked up US rights, reports Indiewire‘s Nigel M. Smith.
Update, 9/14: “It wasn’t until Phoenix met up with The Look of Silence in my head that I realized that the husband’s failure to recognize his wife is a feature, not a bug. It’s not that Hoss has crafted some flawless disguise, or that she goes to exceptionally clever lengths to alter her identifying characteristics; the point is that her husband has every reason to see her, and he chooses not to.” Sam Adams elaborates at Criticwire.
Update, 9/16: “The lean, efficient engine of the film runs on petrol made of film history,” writes Daniel Kasman in the Notebook. Petzold, “with supreme, clean simplicity reveals the history behind cinema’s images and its genres, so that the amnesia films, the noir films, the new-identity films suddenly grow ashen in the light of Phoenix. Behind Suspicion, Eyes without a Face, Vertigo and countless others haunt real people and real histories of betrayal, violence, survival, resuscitation, and revenge. Phoenix, told in Petzold’s direct style which presents his dramas and the abstract ideas which drive them as unavoidable, nearly inevitable images and results, reveals powerfully and with considerable tenderness how cinema works, the power its images contain, and the human histories which are transmuted into the suggestive mysteries and movements of popular moviemaking. Equally important, the film imagines these conventions as told from the other side of the tapestry, Vertigo from Kim Novak’s perspective, a noir detective tale where the femme fatale is the one we understand rather than the dopey detective.”
Update, 9/26: “Phoenix proves a significant departure from Petzold’s filmography, not in terms of the intense intimacy his films are known for, which this movie still very much possesses, but the aesthetic richness his minimalistic approach hitherto largely avoided,” writes Zhuo-Ning Su for Film International. “The movie’s also a lesson on lighting, which is often dim but never insufficient, always purposeful in its use of shades and shadows. And although the abundant use of silhouettes, darkened shapes, partially obscured faces and back views in a story about identities might be a bit too literal to be called masterful, in many cases these shots do actually say more about a character or their circumstances than anything explicit could.”
Update, 10/13: “This is Petzold’s sixth collaboration with Hoss (who recently made her English-language debut in A Most Wanted Man),” notes Ryan Gilbey in the Guardian. “Echoes abound of their previous work together. Like Yella (2007), Phoenix takes place in a kind of purgatory; the infernal scarlet glow spilling from the nightclub which gives the film its title suggests it might even be hell. And in common with the duo’s last picture, the Oscar-nominated Barbara (2012), set during the cold war, it offers accessible commentary on recent German history. But Phoenix is their most complex work to date, as shown by Hoss’s fine-grained performance. Called upon to play a character playing a character playing a character, her dexterity is astonishing. She is part-actor, part-Russian doll.”
Update, 11/29: First, Ioncinema‘s Nicholas Bell interviews Petzold, who describes the kind of film he didn’t want to make, even going so far as to describe a scene that was shot and then cut.
Then Bell talks with Nina Hoss: