German director Christian Petzold made his reputation by finding inventive ways of revisiting his country’s difficult, thorny past. Nina Hoss, who won the Golden Space Needle Award at this year’s SIFF, has followed suit by taking on a series of challenging, Petzold-penned roles (six altogether).
In Phoenix, his Hitchcockian adaptation of Hubert Monteilhet’s 1961 novel, Hoss plays Nelly, a Holocaust survivor who emerges a new woman as the result of plastic surgery to reconstruct her injured face. Though her family is gone, she wants everything else to be as it was. Her primary obstacle: her gentile husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld from Petzold’s excellent Barbara).
Believing her dead, he hopes to claim her inheritance. Fellow survivor Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) recommends a move to Palestine, but Nelly would rather live in the past, so she tracks Johnny down to Berlin nightclub the Phoenix, where he fails to recognize her.
Things get particularly twisted when he recruits her to pose as his dead wife, so that they can split the proceeds. Filled with inky blues and blacks, the look of the film recalls Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterful Army of Shadows, except this is a more intimate effort about two war-traumatized individuals who will believe anything that makes them feel better—no matter how improbable.