By Andrew Tracy Silence is Martin Scorsese’s best film in 20 years—since Kundun (1997), in fact, which also happens to More →
By Adam Nayman
Nina Hoss has one of the great faces in cinema, so it’s perverse to see it swaddled in gauze at the beginning of Phoenix. Strapped into the passenger seat of a car being driven over the Swiss border into Germany at the end of World War II, her Nelly Lenz is a figure of morbid curiosity for both the American roadblock crew and the audience, but only the soldier onscreen gets a look beneath the bandages, at which point he quietly apologizes and waves the vehicle on its way. In a few short, precise strokes, Christian Petzold sketches his protagonist as a tragic victim as well as a survivor whose countenance has a terrible power—a paradox that burns white-hot approximately 90 minutes later in the film’s remarkable and indelible final scene.
Co-written by Petzold and the late Harun Farocki (based on Hubert Monteilhet’s novel Le retour des cendres), Phoenix is quite simply a perfectly conceived and structured film, balancing narrative suspense and thematic complexity without tipping over into either cliché or convolution. It’s also this congenitally referential German director’s most virtuosic display of allusive cinephilia to date, enfolding no less than three classic film noirs into its action where previous works like Yella (2007) and Jerichow (2009) more rigorously pastiched a single American classic each (Carnival of Souls  and The Postman Always Rings Twice , respectively). The early sequences of Nelly stalking the halls of the Berlin hospital where she’s gone to have surgery on her ruined face conjure up Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage (1953), and not only visually; just as Franju’s film mobilized mad-doctor tropes to evoke the medical atrocities of the Holocaust and the spectre of Aryan racial purity, Phoenix frames Nelly’s operation in metaphorical terms: “a new face,” the surgeon assures her, “is an advantage.”
A former nightclub singer of Jewish extraction who was arrested by the S.S. and sent to Auschwitz (where she received her injuries right before her liberation), Nelly doesn’t need her new visage to evade the authorities à la Humphrey Bogart’s wrong-man character in Dark Passage (1957). But as in Delmer Daves’ film, it proves useful in exposing the guilt of another. No sooner have her wounds healed—revealing Hoss’ convincingly sunken and sallow but still hauntingly beautiful features—than Nelly goes searching through the literal rubble of Berlin for her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who she knows from her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) believes her dead. Now working a menial job in a cabaret club called Phoenix, Johnny doesn’t recognize her but sees in this near-doppelganger an opportunity: he’ll ask this stranger (who tells him her name is Esther) to pass for his dead wife and thus access her frozen fortune.
It’s here that Phoenix comes down with a distinct case of Vertigo (1958) and also becomes brutally moving, as Nelly is instructed by a man she has reason to suspect may have been behind her incarceration how to act more like “herself”—already wearing the face of another, she begins to see herself through a different pair of eyes as well. A towering, physically gifted actress, Hoss has always been excellently suited to Petzold’s semi-minimalist style, because she can hold the camera when there isn’t much else to look at; here, it’s harder than ever to focus on all the negative space in Hans Fromm’s static, sparsely furnished interior shots because of the endless and scrupulously controlled (by character and performer both) activity on Nelly’s face. It’s painful to watch Nelly desperately watching Johnny as if at any second, he’ll see her for who she really is. It’s a testament to Zehrfeld’s performance that the open-faced appeal he displayed opposite Hoss in Barbara (2012) is supplanted here by a callow obliviousness; Johnny’s myopia here is moral as well as perceptual, and it gradually becomes clear that he’s strenuously repressing his perceptions of himself, as well.
What’s remarkable about Phoenix is how its Farockian didacticism—the fact that Nelly would rather try to reclaim her place and her identity in a German society that tried to exterminate her rather than go with Lene to settle in Palestine—is blended into its drama so that it becomes a film of ideas that is also a film of emotions. For this critic, at least, the feelings in Jerichow, with its cuckolded Turkish version of Cecil Kellaway, and even the markedly superior Barbara, which trapped Hoss’ eponymous heroine in an East German hospital while she harboured fantasies of the West, were mostly theoretical: the films, and their social critiques, were so neatly turned out that they didn’t leave any residue. Phoenix is neat, too, and perhaps even more chokingly claustrophobic than its predecessors—not least of all when Nelly revisits the spider-hole where she hid from the Nazis—but it also has a plangency that’s distinct from being simply and expertly spartan. In wondering why this excellent movie was missing from the motley competitions in Cannes and Venice (as well as the main slate of the New York Film Festival), critics have cited its climax as Exhibit A in the case for an after-the-fact defense, and while it’s definitely a hell of a scene—a showcase for Nelly and Hoss both to break the fourth walls of their respective performances—the fact is that its power is not generated in a vacuum. Phoenix is a slow burn, perhaps, but it’s also a scorcher; its heroine rises from the ashes, but she doesn’t manage to brush them off.
Cinema Scope: I think Les yeux sans visage is a good starting point to talk about Phoenix, since they are both movies about women’s faces that are also images of nations in wartime—the idea of trying to graft a more beautiful face onto a ruined one.
Christian Petzold: I didn’t show the Franju movie to the actors. I don’t want to show them movies like Les yeux sans visage or Dark Passage, because they’re too near to their characters, and too faraway in the same moment. The first movie we watched during the rehearsals was Jacques Demy’s Les demoiselles de Rochefort (1967). I said to them “Jacques Demy was Jewish. Part of his family was killed in the camps. He’s living in a society where he can make a musical with Gene Kelly, and you feel the Algerian war in it—you can dance and have fantastic colours and camera and songs, but the war is there and the experience of the fascist occupation in France. We don’t have musicals in Germany. Why don’t we have them?” Les yeux sans visage, you’re right, it’s there. I thought also the word “persona”—not the Ingmar Bergman movie. At one of the Q and As in Toronto, Nina said that she felt like she had to simplify her character because the story is so complicated, and she’s right. I had to simplify it so as not to destroy the complexity.
Scope: I also thought about Barbara, and how it feels like between these two movies you’re working backward in time to a kind of primal scene: the divided country in Barbara is built on the ruins of the society we see in Phoenix.
Petzold: You’re right. Five or six years ago, I didn’t like to talk about my work that way, in terms of the connections between it, but I don’t think I’m going to lose my innocence about that now. Harun Farocki and I had wanted to make this movie for 25 years. It’s the longest project I’ve ever had. While we were doing The State I’m In (2002), we were talking about Nuit et brouillard (1956) by Alain Resnais. I’d seen the film as a pupil in school. When it screened at Cannes in 1956, all the Germans at the festival left, because of the movie. Harun told me that for people of his generation, the left-wing students, it was the movie that showed them what had happened in the concentration camps, and so it was the movie that divided them from their parents. They understood that the German state, even the modern German state, was based on fascistic structures. When we started to talk about making Phoenix again, we knew that we wanted to make a movie that took place “in the cut”—the cut that happened between those two generations.
Scope: You talk about the idea of “in the cut,” and it’s the cuts in Nuit et brouillard that show the difference between the time of the Holocaust and the years afterwards, but also links them. They are the same landscapes. I’ve always thought that Resnais’ movie was about the impossibility of ever going back to the way things were before, and that seems to be the theme of Phoenix as well.
Petzold: Yes. But we have a protagonist who wants to go back. In so many of the biographies that I’ve read, including Primo Levi’s, you have people who say that they dream of going back, to a time before someone said, “This is Jewish and this is not Jewish.” They want to go back to a time when there was a mixture of culture. Fascists want to end mixtures. They want clear lines. But no, it’s impossible to go back, because everything has changed. You see in the last travelling shot in Nuit et brouillard a barber’s chair, and it’s just a chair, but it now seems like the most horrible torture implement you’ve ever seen in your life.
Scope: Nelly isn’t just a German woman trying to stay in her own country; she’s also literally trying to climb back into her old life. I feel like Hoss acts the part as if she really believes that she can do this, and that she’ll be able to just jump back over the cut, as you put it.
Petzold: There is the scene where she’s on the boat where she’d hidden herself. She now looks like she did before. She’s made the jump over the cut. She has her hair back, and her skin and her clothes, and there is a man who looks at her a little bit. Her identity is coming back. She can maybe dance a little bit, maybe sing. And then she’s on the ship and she opens the door and she knows that there is no chance to go back in time. Because there is the hole. And then Johnny comes in and asks, “What are you doing?” and you see the fear, as if she is in the camp again. It’s all in Nina’s acting, and it’s something that I was very impressed by.
Scope: A lot of critics have remarked upon the script’s similarities to Vertigo, the idea of a man remaking a woman in the image of somebody else, even though it turns out that she’s exactly the same person who he’s thinking of in the first place. It’s as if you’ve re-done Vertigo from Kim Novak’s point of view.
Petzold: Yes. In Vertigo, Kim Novak is like an invention of Jimmy Stewart’s subjectivity. But also of Hitchcock’s as well. Marilyn Monroe was very expensive and difficult to work with, and so the studios wanted to rebuild her out of somebody else, like Frankenstein’s bride or something. So Kim Novak is playing herself in Vertigo a little bit, and when she’s not playing Madeleine—or Marilyn—when she’s playing a secretary or something, she’s actually really great!
Scope: I also admired Ronald Zehrfeld’s acting in a difficult role. He doesn’t try to make Johnny sympathetic. He’s almost a zombie.
Petzold: It was hard for Ronald. He was like a child. He worked so hard. He looked at 25 movies from the time. He always had cigarettes and dollars in his pockets, because he wanted Johnny to be a real person. But Johnny is dead. From the first moment on the set, I said to him that the tragedy for him as an actor is the same as the tragedy for Johnny as a person—that he’s dead. The end of the movie is not him coming back to life; it’s that he knows that he’s dead. That’s the only development that the character has, and it was very hard for him.
Scope: In Barbara, you have a character who chooses self-effacement; she lets somebody else leave in her place, she sacrifices herself and sort of disappears into captivity. She’s alive but she’s hidden. Here you have, as you say, a woman who is thought to be dead, but in the end she chooses life in a way—she finds a way to let everyone who had abandoned her and forgotten about her know that she’s come back. And when she says it, the way that she says it, those people are destroyed. I think that the audience is destroyed. I was destroyed.
Petzold: Yes, me too. We shot for three or four months, and then Nina and I have had no connection to each other. It’s not because we don’t like each other any more. It’s because the directing of a movie starring a blonde actress and what goes on in Johnny’s basement…the two things are not so far away from each other. At the end of the movie, it wasn’t just Nelly who was going away, it was also Nina saying goodbye to my fantasies as well. When the shooting ends on my films, there is always a party, and the Barbara party lasted for days. With this party, everyone went home after 12 minutes. Nobody talked to each other. We all like each other, but there was an impression left by the film, on all of us, and it was very strong.
Scope: I want to address some of the criticisms I’ve heard of the film, either in reviews or even from some of my colleagues, which is that the plot strains credibility. It seems to me that the story in Phoenix is a very movie-ish story, which is the point—it’s a contrived narrative but it hints at a larger and entirely credible reality of denial on a societal level.
Petzold: We had long discussions with producers, and they said, “We have to see the destroyed face.” I said no. This is not the point. There are two questions that people can ask about the movie. One is, “Where is her face?” The other is, “Why didn’t Johnny recognize Nelly?” My answer to both is that people who ask these questions don’t like movies. It’s what Hitchcock called “the plausibles.” There’s a German word for it too, and it’s a bad word. But it’s also a question of morality that he doesn’t see her face.
Scope: I think he does recognize her, but he’s repressing it. It’s too painful to see that the woman he betrayed is still alive. It is safer for him in every way if she’s dead.
Petzold: She’s dead. He’s dead. They’re two ghosts. They can’t recognize each other.
Scope: I feel like after Jerichow and especially Barbara, your films are becoming sparer and sparer as they go along. I wonder if that’s because as you move backwards in time, from the present to the early ’80s and now to the ’40s, the worlds you’re filming get further and further away—so the style becomes more minimal, and at the same time, more mythic.
Petzold: There was a picture from the Shoah Foundation of a Russian soldier in a Polish forest. It looks like Manet because it’s out of focus. It’s very Romantic. And then you see that there are all of these dead bodies lying around. I was impressed by the picture. I showed the picture to everyone, and told them that they had to take two looks at it to see what was really in it. I liked it very much. I said that we would begin the film with a sort of remake of this photograph: a forest, in February, a little bit of snow, it looks very peaceful, and then we are shocked. On the first day of shooting, I had Russian soldiers and German soldiers, and guns, costumes—concentration camp costumes. People from the press were there, they say it looks so great. After two or three hours I knew it was a big, big mistake. It was the same as with Yella, when I originally shot the first scene as a remake of Marnie (1964), but then realized that it had nothing to do with the story, that it was just a quotation. This time, though, it was like an infection of bad morality, to try and remake a photograph like that. It was wrong. Perhaps we had to make this sort of mistake to locate the sort of ellipsis and space that was necessary to produce Phoenix.
Scope: You must have a very forgiving producer.
Petzold: He’s outside right now. Now he’s happy. But it cost us 75,000 euros.
Scope: One section of the film that does emphasize the period detail is the material shot in the nightclub, which evokes Fassbinder but also Christopher Isherwood’s stories and Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972).
Petzold: Harun said that if Cabaret was the last movie that took place in Germany before the Nazis came, that we would just stay in the club and tell another story.
Scope: In Cabaret there’s that amazing scene in the beer garden where the blonde boy sings “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” and you see that fascism arrives in Germany under the guise of enthusiastic cultural affirmation and a kind of wholesome pride. There are so few German films since the end of World War II that show any kind of pride in the country, not even really in its progress or its changes. It’s all guilt, regret, analysis. Do you think that that will ever change? Can it?
Petzold: Harun and I were watching the World Cup in Brazil. The first time I saw our team, I was really proud. They were playing great football. They destroyed the Brazilian team. I saw Germans who were calm and friendly, and very gracious in victory. We were really proud. I was proud that we didn’t enter the war in Iraq either, but this is the first time that I really had that sort of feeling. Three or four days later, they won the championship against Argentina and came back to Berlin, and there was a big party and then there were all these jokes about Argentina. You know what I mean. Really bad jokes. And everything went back. I said to Harun, I think we need 20 more years to make movies about proud Germans.
Scope: I’m going to ask you about your two major collaborators. Firstly, with Nina Hoss. It seems that your last two films with her have either deglamourized her or else complicated that movie-star glamour that she has. It’s an interesting way to use a leading lady, and I wonder how conscious that is, for both of you.
Petzold: After our first three movies together, I saw something in her that was like a partisan. She didn’t want to be so beautiful. She doesn’t want to be in love. She doesn’t want to show emotions. She doesn’t want to show her body. She wants to hide herself. She doesn’t want to do advertisements. I liked what I saw on the editing table. She isn’t playing to the light. She’s going to the darkness. She’s always playing. We talked about it and reflected on it and she liked that idea.
Scope: Do you think that Nelly’s new face—which is Nina Hoss’ face—is more beautiful than her “real one?” We never see her played by another actress, but it’s something that I was wondering about the whole time.
Petzold: Yes, I do. I told Nina that Lauren Bacall was 19 or 20 when she did To Have and Have Not (1944) but it’s not till Written on the Wind (1956) that she’s really an adult, and so she’s pretty in another way. She’s pretty because of the experiences that she’s had. So at the end of Phoenix, we see Nelly, and she’s on her own, she seems to be an adult, and she’s beautiful.
Scope: I also wanted to ask you about working with Harun Farocki, but I imagine it might be difficult, as he’s just recently passed away.
Petzold: He died five weeks ago. I don’t reflect about it. In the future when I’m writing, I’m going to go to his grave like in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). There is no other collaboration that I can think about. I’m going to take a break next year. We had started a movie together but I’m going to put it on hold.