PHOENIX arrives to considerable anticipation and rewards it. The get go is arresting, with dignified Nina Kunzendorf’s night of driving through occupied immediate post WW2 Germany with a companion whose face is covered with bloody bandages, halted by an American soldier bridge sentry who demands that the bandages be removed. He sees the face that we don’t and is shocked into an apology.
Turns out the victim is Auschwitz survivor Nina Hoss, who recovers with a course of reconstructive facial surgery. She’s offered the suddenly unfashionable Kristina Söderbaum or Zarah Leander as models but she wants to be put back the way she was. Glamorous actresses love coming on ugly (think Charleze Theron or Emma Thompson) and we expect that Hoss is going to be restored from post operative disfigurement to gorgeous, as the film progresses. I was sitting there waiting for her to go blonde again but on this as most things Christian Petzold out-guesses me.
The film pivots on her musician ex-husband Ronald Zehrfeld, now reduced to Phoenix (we got it!) bar thug plotting to recover her family fortune by giving her a make-over, which makes her look like his now missing former wife. Well, most of the critics who cover the film immediately say VERTIGO. That plot long pre-dates Hitchcock’s soggy version - the well known Yevgeni Bauer silent and a French thirties film I should have written down the name of, to start. Libération’s critic did make a more interesting reference to LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN. What is disenchanting is that no writer has come up with the fact that the original Hubert Monteilhet novel was previously filmed as J. Lee Thompson’s (awful) RETURN FROM THE ASHES. The comparison is particularly revealing.
PHOENIX is full of resonant moments - Kunzendorf outlining the women’s future in Israel financed by German money, the awful Zehrfeld impulsively giving Hoss money and a black-market ration book, her fingering the can of American Orange juice after having the housekeeper’s ersatz meals, her pausing to look at the Hedy Lamar magazine cover which he remembers his dead wife as using as a model for her look and “No one will ask you about the camps.”
It has three terrific lead performances and is set in an imposing Post WW2 Germany with litter filled streets, cracking, rotting-painted walls, pleasure seeker US troops and cabaret floozies who do “Nacht und Tag” for their delight. It’s is more convincing and significantly more evocative than the one we see in authentic films like IRGENDWO IN BERLIN, DIE MÒRDER SIND UNTER UNS or BERLIN EXPRESS.
The ending is perfect.
With BARBARA and this one Petzold is on a streak which make him a prized festival contender.
*Phoenix ((Christian Petzold, Germany, 2014, 98 minutes, Australian Distributor, Madman Entertainment)