An Hitchcockian Berlin-set thriller, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix (2014) hinges almost entirely on its sensational finale; a near-perfect coda to a film that employs acquainted genre tropes to unearth the malodorous remnants of memory and guilt in contemporary Germany. Petzold’s characters often find themselves in situations in which they must conceal a truth about themselves; a secret that threatens to unfurl the fabric of their lives, they’re usually alienated, forced into corner and struggling to overcome a desire to escape their homeland. The same themes are present in Phoenix, where Nina Hoss stars as Nelly, a disfigured concentration camp survivor who, after major facial reconstruction, returns to Berlin.
On Nelly’s return to Berlin she learns that her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) might have had something to do with her capture, but when she finally locates him she’s shocked to discover he doesn’t recognise her. Johnny does, however, notice Nelly shares a striking resemblance to his late wife and proposes that she pretends to be her so they can divide her fortune. Johnny’s inability to recognise his wife feels like an inconceivable MacGuffin, yet the premise works beautifully as Petzold’s latest has been fastidiously moulded within the dreamlike universe of cinema, with Johnny’s guilt a clear and credible stand-in for a nation’s desire to forget. A rich and poignant metaphor for post-Holocaust acceptance in Germany, Petzold examines the immediate ramifications of guilt prevalent at the time.
Unlike other studies of post-war reparations Petzold is far more interested in the psychological repercussions of guilt and how trauma must be repeated if it’s to be overcome. It’s this beautifully structured ballet of remembrance that makes the piece so enthralling, especially when observing Nelly as she’s confronted with her past whilst sat in Johnny’s basement waiting for him to recognise her. The scenes shared between the two are brimming with tension, with Hoss’ soft voice and stilted manner belying the surge of emotion concealed behind her stoic demeanour. Phoenix shares many similarities with Petzold’s previous film Barbara (2012), a tense tale about a doctor working in the 1980s and her attempt to escape East Germany. Not only do both films star Hoss and Zehrfeld, with their relationship in both films representing the constant metamorphoses of Germany identity, but they also focus on the reverberations of memory within a place. Despite Germany’s shifting borders and various changes in government, history lingers ominously in the background like a spectre of ill fortune, and Petzold posits that regardless of the period; the Weimar Republic, Nazi German or the Socialist German Democratic Republic the past can never truly be forgotten.
Whilst the stifling atmosphere and pensive tone Petzold constructs makes for a thrilling amalgamation of the duality of appearances and reality of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmallion with the romantic delusion and transference of guilt in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, it’s Petzold’s ability to distil the existential probing of the German New Wave into an accessible and incredibly enjoyable thriller that is ultimately Phoenix’s crowning achievement. By turning Germany’s tumultuous history into a swirling wash of dream-like fragments and fading memories Petzold has created a contemporary ghost story for the lessons of the past that have become eroded by the remorseless procession of time. It’s only at the very end of Phoenix that the pieces finally fall into place and the brilliance of Petzold methodology is revealed; A haunting and brilliantly calibrated finale that marks the German auteur as a genuine master of suspense.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble