In a loose adaptation of Hubert Monteilhet’s 1961 novel Le Retour des cendres, Berlin School stalwart Christian Petzold has decided to move further back in history, leaving East Germany behind (a fine decision as far as I’m concerned) for Germany 1945, and asking what it takes to rise from the ashes in these desperate and confusing circumstances. Phoenix begins as a woman with neither a home nor a face crosses across the Swiss border back into the rubble of postwar Germany. This being a Petzold film, the woman is of course played by Nina Hoss, her visage swathed in bandages after a stint in a concentration camp, en route to a facility where she can choose to rebuild herself, literally, before starting her life again in Israel. (Echoes of Dark Passage? Franju?)
But Hoss’ Nelly Lenz refuses to take the easy way out, electing to reconstruct her looks as close as possible to her old ones (mistake #1), then escaping into the Berlin night to hunt down her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, remarkably unctuous as the righteous gentile turned righteous asshole), denizen of the nightclub underworld and all-around no-goodnik (mistake #2). Johnny doesn’t recognize her, but sees a resemblance, and soon proposes that Nelly pretend to be his ex-wife (i.e., herself) in order to claim her inheritance. Claustrophobia sets in again (she spent months during wartime hiding in a hole) when Nelly is again imprisoned, this time being complicit in her own captivity, as Johnny forces her under lock and key to re-learn her own mannerisms, enacting a very dangerous cat-and-mouse game indeed. (Clear and intentional echoes of Vertigo.)
Truly elevating the pulpy source material, Petzold swirls the pot of suspense, revenge and guilt with not only a Hitchcockian but also a Fassbinderian touch. Films don’t get more psychologically complex than this, which was inexplicably rejected by both Cannes and Venice in favour of who the hell knows what. One last note: Petzold collaborated on the script with the great Harun Farocki, who passed away on July 30, and worked with Petzold on his feature scripts dating back to The State I Am In.