Set in the aftermath of WWII, Phoenix is a slow burn noir-like psychological thriller about identity, survival, obsesion and betrayal. It bears some similarity to the Hitchcock classic Vertigo as well as Brian De Palma’s Obsession.
Disfigured Jewish concentration camp survivor Nelly Lanz (Nina Hoss, recently seen in A Most Wanted Man) has undergone plastic surgery and facial reconstruction surgery. Now known as Lene she begins to search the rubble strewn and ravaged streets of Berlin for her former husband Johannes (Ronald Zehrfeld), a musician who may have betrayed her to the Nazis to save his own skin. When she eventually finds him working as a pianist in the nightclub that gives the film its title he doesn’t immediately recognise her. He does notice a strong resemblance to his former wife. But believing her to be dead he approaches Lene and convinces her to pretend to be Nelly so that he can get his hands on her unclaimed inheritance. He teaches her to move and act like his former wife. He even has her dress in the same clothes, and works on her handwriting.
The director is Christian Petzold (Barbara) and he manages to slowly develop the tension in the lead up to the important climactic family reunion, and he gives us a satisfying conclusion. Petzold directed Hoss in Barbara, and the two obviously have established a good rapport and understanding that helps shape this enigmatic thriller. He draws a good performance from Hoss, who captures Nelly’s fear and uncertainty and her inability to move on from the tragedy of her past, as well as her strength of purpose.
The production design recreates the ravaged streets of post-war Berlin, while the music score is evocative of the era. Cinematographer Hans Fromm has effectively used light and shadow to create an evocative and unsettling mood.
Phoenix screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival earlier in the year and this hard to forget drama stands as a fine example of contemporary German cinema.
Director: Christian Petzold
Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf
Release Date: 3 December 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television