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‘Phoenix’ Reviews: A Postwar-set Masterwork By Way of ‘Vertigo’

'Phoenix' Reviews: A Postwar-set Masterwork By Way of 'Vertigo'

Every festival has one or two moments that get everyone talking, and the final scene in Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix” might be the definitive one at TIFF 2014. The film concerns a Holocaust survivor (frequent Petzold muse Nina Hoss) who was so badly disfigured in the war that reconstructive surgery has drastically changed her appearance. She reunites with her husband, but he does not realize that it’s her, and he tries to convince her to “pretend” to be his wife so he can get at her fortune as she tries to figure out whether or not he was the one who betrayed her to the Nazis. 

Over the past several days, the film has slowly gained word-of-mouth “you gotta see this” status. The frequently rapturous reviews have described the film as postwar drama by way of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” and nearly all have praised Hoss’ performance, Petzold’s elegant touch and the film’s psychological complexity. But even the less enthusiastic reviews have conceded that the film’s final scene is truly devastating.

Jake Cole, Slant Magazine

Petzold appears far less concerned with the usual, futile attempts to explain the behavior of Germans during the war than in studying the manner in which people attempted to rebuild post-Nazi identity, and Hoss’s elliptical performance suggests multitudes of contradictions and insolubility. Petzold also produces some of his most spellbinding images, from noirish scenes of Nelly sneaking around darkened, red-lit alleys searching of Johnny to the Chekhov-defying finale. If it doesn’t quite reach the level of “Barbara,” “Phoenix” still perpetuates one of the best contemporary director-actor collaborations, one that carries on the existential quandaries of the German New Wave in more accessible form. Read more.

Mike D’Angelo, The Dissolve

This a pretty high-concept plot for Petzold, who’s more of a slow-burn director (his previous films include “Barbara” and “Jerichow”), and much of the film plays like a desultory variation on the scenes in “Vertigo” that see Scottie dressing Judy up as Madeleine, to her increasing consternation. The husband’s scheme doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, either, since it’s not as if he and this woman he thinks isn’t really Nelly can just split the cash and go their separate ways—her dramatic reappearance will take place before the surviving members of her family, and they’ll ostensibly be married again. Are they going to wait for a while and then divorce? Is he planning to kill her? The movie ignores these questions, as it’s too busy building to a devastating finale—one that’s been carefully set up practically from the opening scene, yet still succeeds in inspiring full-body shivers. Paul Newman once told William Goldman that the last five minutes are the most crucial part of any movie; in this case, at least, he appears to have been right. Read more.

Nikola Grozdanovic, The Playlist

Digging further into this complex framework of highly charged emotion and inhibition is the dubious personality of Johnny. Did he ever love Nelly? Did he really betray her to the Nazis? Does he, in fact, recognize the post-war Nelly but refuses to admit it? And if so, does he refuse because of guilt or because of greed? This is Petzold’s method of building suspense, and as we continue to experience the film more and more through Nelly’s perspective, these questions immerse us deeper into the story and truly make the entire picture pulsate and drip with a kind of dread. Setting the story in post-war Berlin is yet another approach that works wonders in “Phoenix.” Countless films have explored Holocaust survivors either many years after the war or right in the middle of it, but it’s a rare thing to follow a survivor in the immediate aftermath and in the very city that spread the poison of the war. In this way, Petzold distills a familiar atmosphere to create a work veiled in vibrant, cohesive, sensitively stimulating power. Read more.

Eric Kohn, Indiewire

Their drama unfolds with a noir-like elegance against the shadowy city streets, where Nelly comes upon the Phoenix club and creeps through its shadowy interiors. Much of the movie’s haunting qualities emerge from Hoss’ wide-eyed reactions to the demolished world around her, particularly her husband’s pathetic condition. Eking out a decrepit existence in a dank cellar, he forces her to remain there and “learn” how to behave like the woman he believes to be dead — insisting she imitate her own handwriting, come up with a backstory and wear her old clothing. Zehrfield — who last portrayed Hoss’ love interest in “Barbara” — plays his distraught character with an uneasy quality pitched between nervousness and outright frustration. Read more.

Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com

Hoss is mesmerizing here in every single beat. It’s a performance from which you can’t turn away. Watch Nelly shrivel in the first-act suggestions that she get a new face or simply move away from Berlin. If she’s not “Nelly Lenz of Berlin,” who is she? Hoss sells the need we all have for identity, for place, for home, with palpable intensity. And watch the way she slowly unfolds as Johnny transforms her, becoming both more confident and more aware of the horror of her situation as she rises like the titular creature of the film. The final scene, without spoiling anything, is a movie moment for the ages. Read more.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club

As in his earlier films, Petzold underplays the pulpiness of his premise, instead focusing on its complex psychological and emotional undercurrents: Nelly’s tentative suspicion toward Johnny, whose memory she credits with keeping her alive in Auschwitz, but who may have been responsible for sending her there; sequences of Johnny teaching her to behave like her former self, and to imitate a vivaciousness long lost to trauma; the ambiguous discomfort of the scenes where Johnny, a gentile, coaches the woman he doesn’t realize is his Jewish wife on how to pretend to be a Holocaust survivor. Read more.

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