Phoenix (Sundance Selects, PG-13)

phoenix 75Director Christian Petzold has crafted his sharpest film yet.

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Phoenix is the sixth film in a series of collaborations between acclaimed director Christian Petzold and actress Nina Hoss (Yella, Barbara). It is a noir-styled thriller with shades of Hitchcock. In the film, a gunshot wound has left Nelly Lyn (Hoss) disfigured. After surviving the war and her time in Auschwitz, her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) travels with her to a clinic for a reconstructive procedure. Nelly is desperate to look exactly as she did before, though the doctor deems it impossible. Upon returning to Berlin, Nelly and Lene visit the ashes of Nelly’s former home. She catches her reflection in a piece of broken glass, and becomes distraught. She can’t recognize herself.

Upon returning to Berlin, Nelly is driven by one purpose: finding her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, Barbara). Before the war, Nelly sang in a nightclub where Johnny played piano. It still stands tall in a city of ash. Named aptly, the Phoenix’s neon sign cuts through the dark alleys of Berlin in a crimson-red glow. It seems to spell doom for Nelly the way noirs typically do. It is there that she finds Johnny. He does not recognize her as his wife, but instead as someone who looks quite like her. Even worse, he hopes to persuade her to impersonate his Nelly—pre-war Nelly—in order to claim her inheritance. She is more than willing, despite Lene’s warnings that Johnny may be the one who turned her in to the Nazis.

As the premise suggests, this film can weigh on one’s suspension of disbelief. If you would be offended that Johnny doesn’t instantly recognize Nelly by the sound of her voice, skip this one. In fact, skip all of them. Petzold doesn’t make films for you. For the rest of us, Petzold has crafted his sharpest film yet. The metaphorical approach for the state of post-war Germany could have easily felt trite, or even hammy, in the hands of another. Instead, this film feels like the natural culmination of Petzold and Hoss’ cinematic history together. There is even a scene in the film that exactly mirrors a moment in Jerichow.

Yet again, Hoss illuminates Petzold’s stark sets in the way she commands the viewer’s attention. She has that type of quiet intensity that people often associate with Tom Hardy as of late. It’s all in the details with Hoss, and near impossible to take your eyes off her. Zehrfeld rises to the occasion in the challenging role as Johnny, however his standout work is still found in Barbara. Though it does reward those who have followed their careers, overall this is the broadest piece of work Petzold has done and a welcome place to start.

It is a wonder that Petzold struggled to find an end to this film, as its conclusion seems to be the only one possible. This final sequence is cinematic storytelling at its very finest. It is a weight you will carry with you long after seeing it in the theater. Phoenix is a near-perfect genre piece for anyone willing to allow Petzold to take them into his naturalistic fantasy. | Cait Lore

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