London Film Festival: Phoenix

Directed by Christian Petzold
Starring Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Kunzendorf

by Amanda Farley

In this film noir drama from director Christian Petzold we enter an athmospheric world of lies and lost chances.

Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, a concentration camp survivor. Emerging from the horrors of the camp she undergoes major reconstructive surgery to rebuild her damaged face. Unable to replicate her old appearance doctors remind her that a new face could be an advantage.

Unable to move on and desperate to recapture her past existence, Nelly goes in search of her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), a man who may have betrayed her to the Nazis. When she finds him, his reaction is not what she expected but lured by his attentions and desperate to grasp at any echo of her lost identity she agrees to his plan. As Nelly pretends to be herself in order to please Johnny and help him claim his dead wife’s estate, she begins to find herself again.

Phoenix is Petzold’s sixth collaboration with Hoss. Looking at Germany’s recent history the film explores the period directly after the Second World War. With concentration camp survivors returning to their homes, we see the discomfort of a society that would rather forget what it is daily confronted with. There is a freshness about this period that Petzold captures, it is a part of history often overlooked in cinema and it provides a powerful backdrop to this dark relationship drama between a husband and wife, hidden from each other by their own secrets.

Hoss excels in this complex role. Her performance is both powerful and nuanced and her ability to play a character, who is playing a character, with such effortless ease illustrates her skill as one of Germany’s finest actresses. Combined with Petzold’s storytelling prowess, this makes a story that should feel far fetched and implausible, completely believable. This is a suspenseful drama that is reminiscent of Hitchcock. The closing image of the red dress and Nelly’s rendition of Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s Speak Low, perfectly sum up the elegance of this film. Always understated but always powerful, both Petzold and Hoss bring a world to life that echoes in the imagination well after the end credits have finished.

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