Director: Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Michael Maertens, Imogen Kogge
Written by: Christian Petzold, Harun Farocki and (based on the novel “Le Retour des cendres”) Hubert Monteilhet
Running Time: 98 mins
Release date: 8th May 2015
German cinema has been quietly growing in the background, behind the likes of French and the seemingly endless supply of Scandinavian crime thrillers. Yet while they have been ruling the international market, Germany has quietly been sending out films that, while maybe not as popular as their other European film makers, are just as effective and just as interesting. Take Phoenix, for example, a slow burning yet incredibly effective drama from director Christian Petzold.
Berlin 1945 just after the war. Nelly, a former concentration camp victim, has returned to the big city with a disfigured face. After reconstructive surgery, she still pines for her husband, Johnny. On meeting him at the nightclub, Phoenix, where she use to sing, he thinks she is dead and so persuades this “stranger” to pretend to be his wife in order to reclaim the inheritance that she is due. What he doesn’t realise is that Nelly is his wife and that a dark secret is about to become apparent.
Petzold’s film doesn’t rush. In fact, this drama, where most of the action is in one place, sometimes feels like its going to stop any minute. Yet for all its deliberate slowness, this just draws out the emotional mess that Nelly is feeling. This is a woman who has somehow managed to escape the horrors of a concentration camp, with a bloodied face, having to patch up her shattered life only to find herself yearning for a man who doesn’t even recognise her and uses her for his own financial means.
Yet all the while, Petzold manages to control the mood of the piece, building up the tension beautifully and yet never allowing the more thrilling aspects to interfere with the subtle, quieter moments, when Nelly is forced to stay, prisoner-like, in a cellar that Johnny has set up in order for her to capture her movements, her looks and her characteristics. You find yourself completely immersed in Nelly’s world and with that immersion, comes sorrow, longing and heartache.
This is helped by two outstanding lead performances, Ronald Zehrfeld’s almost all-controlling Johnny, is a perfectly placed performance. You think he is a reasonable man but underneath there is a darker, more demanding man who pushes Nelly to the limit.
As Nelly, Nina Hoss is magnificent. Capturing the pain and agony of a woman who has seen and experienced such horrors in the camp, here is a woman having to revisit those emotions in the world she thought she could trust. You can see in her eyes how much she longs for Johnny to even remotely recognise her, while at the same time she wants to be the pawn in his game, allowing her to see the real man he is. It is a tour-de-force and she is a name to look out for.
Phoenix is not for everyone. Some might find the pacing far too leisurely and the lack of anything exciting or action packed may be off-putting. But here is a film oozing with class. It’s a character study, a depiction of human nature played out with meticulous perfection. It also has one of the finest endings to a film in a very long while.