Phoenix (2014)

Petzold’s unique treatment of the doppelganger story as a Hitchcockian exercise in exorcising the Jewish-German trauma of WWII boasts an extraordinary denouement of unparalleled execution. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #2,205

Dir. Christian Petzold
2014 | Germany | Drama | 98 mins | 2.35:1 | German & English
PG (passed clean) for some thematic elements and brief suggestive material

Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf
Plot: A disfigured Holocaust survivor sets out to determine if the man she loved betrayed her trust.
Awards: Official Selection (Toronto)
International Sales: The Match Factory

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Trauma, Identity
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

Along with Barbara (2012) and Transit (2018), Phoenix is part of Christian Petzold’s self-proclaimed thematic trilogy about love in oppressive systems. 

Set even earlier than Barbara’s intriguing Cold War milieu, Phoenix brings us back to WWII as the director’s muse, the always incredible Nina Hoss, plays Nelly, a disfigured Auschwitz survivor who returns to her husband to find out if he had betrayed her to the Nazis. 

The only complication is that Nelly’s husband doesn’t recognise her—in fact, he takes advantage of her likeness to his ‘deceased’ wife by turning her into the Nelly that he remembers so as to obtain her inheritance. 

There are, of course, Vertigo (1958) vibes in this one, as Petzold once again channels his inner Hitchcock to deliver a unique treatment of the doppelganger story, one that gives us a sense of the Jewish-German trauma that permeated in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. 

“I no longer exist.”

While Phoenix is in a way an exorcism of unwanted ghosts from the past, it is also a masterful example of Petzold’s immaculate craft, particularly his unhurried yet highly-efficient storytelling style. 

Not a shot is wasted, and its denouement, one of the most extraordinary sequences you can ever hope to experience in contemporary European cinema, is the icing on the cake. 

Some might find the plot outlandish—after all, slight physical differences aside, can a husband ever not recognise his wife, that is to say, her essence?  You probably won’t care after some point because Phoenix is not a work that can be glossed over or trivialised. 

Its serious subject matter is brought to life with the thinnest of subtleties, so much so that you can feel as if the film—in all of its delicateness and vulnerability—might just fall apart.  This is the brilliance of Petzold, who’s daring enough to place his narrative on a precarious balance, much like the façade that Nelly puts up.

Grade: A-




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