Phoenix, the devastating middle chapter in Petzold’s marvelous ‘Love in the Times of Oppressive Systems’ trilogy – sandwiched between Barbara and Transit – is a magnificent examination of identity and memory in the complex and ambiguous atmosphere of post-WWII Germany. Ravishing, moody, haunting, luxuriously filmed and delicately structured, the film eschewed conventional realism and was seeped in cinematic references – from classic noirs and Vertigo to Eyes without A Face – as it tackled with remarkable assurance a subject as troubling as the murky period it was set in. Loosely adapted from Hubert Monteilhet’s novel The Return from the Ashes but transplanted to war-ravaged Berlin shortly after Nazi Germany’s collapse (reminiscent of his transplantation of James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice to a very different political context in Jerichow), the film is centered around Nelly (Nina Hoss), a former cabaret singer and Holocaust survivor. After undergoing reconstructive surgeries for disfigurements suffered at the camps – preferring to reclaim her earlier face when many preferred new identities to hide their pasts – she stumbles upon her husband Johny (Ronald Zehrfeld), a former piano player working at a smoky nightclub. Unable to recognize her but noticing an uncanny resemblance nevertheless, he asks her to impersonate Nelly so that they can split her fortunes; she starts playing along in this game as she’s still in love with him, even if he might’ve had betrayed her to the Nazis. Hoss was riveting as the fragile protagonist, while Zehrfeld was good too as her obtuse, roguish ex-husband; the enigmatic intimacy, luscious visual schema and engrossing jazzy score made this all the more evocative, while husky rendition of Kurt Weill sensuous song Speak Low took the film to a heartbreaking finale.
Director: Christian Petzold
Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama/Political Drama/Psychological Drama