It’s rewarding to broaden ones horizons isn’t it? Following last year’s rather poor attendance with shall we say less mainstream movie digestion I’ve made a concerted effort this year, to seek out new material from territories and terrain which is usually less travelled, and the fruits of my labour are finally ripening. I’ll save my comments on my excursion into Argentinan cinema for another infinitely more pretentious post, but back in Europe there is a filmmaker whom has come to prominence over the past few years through his repeated collaborations with his on-screen actress muse – I’m talking about Christian Petzold and the brilliant Nina Hoss. Over the past decade they have made five films together, a cinema which in its broadest terms could be classified as nationalist enquiries into the history, the social and cultural dimensions of their shared homeland of Germany. Prior to this article dropping a week ago I had already delved into his acute emotional character pieces framed within historical thrillers, Petzold trimming his movies with a slight sense of genre foliage while the real work is occurring in the long grass of identity, ideology and individuals operating almost as cyphers of their homelands psychological temperature. It appears that this discovery was perfectly timed as his new and perhaps most assured film Phoenix arrived in the more affluent end of the cinema spectrum last week, so once again the travelcard was engaged to a repeat visit to (coincidently enough) the Phoenix screen of the Curzon Renoir.
Berlin, 1945, a city and country sheathed in ruinous, smouldering desperation. A mysterious figure is whisked through an Allied checkpoint during a furtive nocturnal manoeuvre, her companion Lene (Nina Kundenzorf) explaining to the suspicious troops that her heavily bandaged and facially obscured companion isn’t Eva Braun but a scarred young survivor of the death camps. She is Nelly (Hoss, brilliantly impenetrable), a young Jewish singer who has returned from almost certain death, with horrendous facial scarring and an interior obliteration. In order to rebuild their lives and begin anew Lene arranges for Nelly’s plastic surgery, while urging her to join her on her planned decant to Palestine in order to join the fledging Israeli post war state. Nina is drawn to a different flame however and with her new appearance begins to court her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), a musician relegated to barman at the sleazy Phoenix club, a rather desperate smoke-choked locale where furtive sexual encounters between panting GI’s and resource starved locals are scored by Weimar decadent aural nostalgia. When Johnny notices the resemblance of Nina to his dead wife – she does nothing to disavow him of his ambitions and inform him that she is the real Nina – he traps her into a furtive scheme, to simulate the return of his real wife in order to swindle his surviving relatives by marriage out of the modest family finances.
There is no escaping the halo of Hitchcock’s Vertigo from a first viewing of this haunting film, with a woman being reconstructed by a man in the image of his dead lover, erecting a hall of mirrors of desire, identity and deceit among the rubble strewn, decomposing ruins of the Third Reich. The film’s title signals the thematic and ideological levels that Petzold is zeroing upon, the Phoenix as rebirth of Nelly following her devastating betrayal and abuse, a personal emotional motif resonating for the difficult birth of a new, post-Nazi European state. Hoss is absolutely magnificent in her restrained, opaque performance as a creature deeply and permanently scarred by her physical and psychic ordeals, never revealing her mysterious decisions to cloak her identity or reveal her true paternity to her treacherous husband. Petzold balances the osculating rhythms of his film through a careful command of tone and framing – interior vs. exterior, social vs. singular, allegiance vs. betrayal – with just a discreet directorial flourish which is sparsely applied, the odd dash of semiotic colour here, a elevation in score and sound there. It’s a chilly, austere work which probably requires a few sittings to fully crack its coding, to decipher and heal Nelly’s psychiatric scars.
The film is afflicted with some dramatic flaws which meander to cul-de-sacs rather than connect the themes in some grand Wehrmacht battle plan, one character whom we feel we should know better is written out of the narrative in a rather clumsy fashion for plot functions, and perhaps a shard, a glimpse of some psychological truth behind Nelly’s occasionally illogical behaviour would have served to identify with her decisions and possible delusions on a more empathic level. The final scene however is sublime and the transcedant revelation that the entire film has been building toward, a rendition of elevation and escape on a rival with Bresson at his most moving. As a final note I can strongly recommend 2012’s Barbara which critically speaking was one of those breakthrough films which raised Petzold’s visability through the world cinema set, my personal favourite of his films is Yella which is best described as a Michel Haneke temperature remake of the eerie masterpiece Carnival Of Souls, which as it stands is one of the most rewarding films I’ve seen this year. Phoenix is another successful entry in an increasingly tensile filmography, a body politic that harbours both geographic gentile and cartographic contours of the soul, powered by one of the great contemporary director /actor partnerships;