TIFF 2014. Correspondences Postscript: Christian Petzold's "Phoenix"

Christian Petzold's simmering post-war German anti-thriller "Phoenix" is the Toronto film festival's best premiere.
Daniel Kasman

Dear Fern,

For a final postscript I don't have so much a correspondence or a round-up of what I've seen for you, but rather I've saved the best for last: Christian Petzold's Phoenix.

Christian Petzold took a bold step into history with 2012's Barbara, exiling Nina Hoss's heroine into the diaphanous threats and suspicions of a provincial, 1980s East Germany. With Phoenix, his follow-up, Petzold takes this movement into history even further, striking starkly, deeply at questions of identity in a post-war Germany quivering silently with destitution, rage, and willful blindness. In a spectral sequence opening the film directly evoking the eerie clinical imagery of Georges Franju's lyrical horror film Eyes without a Face, Nelly, a concentration camp survivor, returns in quiet to Berlin after having reconstructive surgery following wartime mutilations. The woman who emerges from under the knife cannot be recognized. She emerges as embodied by Nina Hoss—a true queen in today's cinema—and her slender, lean physique becomes that of a post-war zombie, a ghost embodied, tottering and halting, a body not familiar with movements outside the camp, her familiar, wide-eyes unsure of the face that surrounds it.

Nelly's friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf, strong, angular and wonderful), a Jewess who helped her recover in secret and is a stalwart Nazi hater and a worker for the Jewish Agency for Palestine, wants them both, in a sexually ambiguous desire, to escape—or restart their lives—in Haifa, in Israel. Most especially, Lene wants Nelly to keep away from her ex-husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld as a burly, single-minded hunk), whom Lene claims divorced and then betrayed Nelly as Jewish to the Nazis. But Nelly's vision of her husband is what kept her alive in the camps, and she seeks him out in a shattered Berlin, in a nightclub with the name of the film, the emblem of rebirth. He does not recognize her. But he eventually recognizes someone he could, like Scottie to Madeline in Vertigo, remake in the image of the dead, here, in an impoverished Germany, so as to inherit Nelly's languished fortune. Hoping in the process of being remade as her old self to convince Johnny not only of her identity but to reveal his love for her, a love that can see through the war, Nelly allows herself, wills herself, to be re-styled as her pre-war self even as her face and body have been transformed into those of another: a victim, a survivor.

There are no "whys" in Phoenix—"why, after so much effort and intimacy, would Johnny not recognize his wife?"—only "ifs": what if a husband was a collaborator; what if those who returned couldn't be recognized for their experiences, for their identities; what if their war experiences could be erased; what if you were made to tell your war story to one who secretly knew it, knew your lies; what if atrocities rose up as fictions, what if, what if, what if.

The lean, efficient engine of the film runs on petrol made of film history. Petzold, who collaborated with the late Harun Farocki on the screenplay, 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 PhoenixBehind 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. Johnny wants to disavow the possibility of Nelly's existence after a tragic loss—or possibly a betrayal—and so despite his mission to rebuild his wife out of an anonymous survivor, he remains thick-headed and in the dark. It is Nelly who has the power, despite her anonymity; it is she who wants so much, wants to work so hard to convince the person most close to her before the war that she's the same. But are any of them the same? The unsteady, paranoid world of Barbara, where anyone, even a loved one, may be a spy, is brutally wound back in time to an even worse proposition: anyone could be anyone—coldly: Nazi or not-Nazi, Jew or not-Jew—and will deny or admit only what they want. The proposition is terrifying, and of course, true: survivors unrecognized, criminals unrepentant. The reformation of a country and a people are thereby slyly, disturbingly expressed through plastic surgery terms: "Your reconstructed face," Lene says. Then, thinking she's offended Nelly, she rephrases: "Let's say re-created."

And with that, Fernando, I'll leave you until next year—for which I'm already eagerly waiting.



Don't miss our latest features and interviews.


TIFFTIFF 2014Christian PetzoldCorrespondencesFestival Coverage
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.