Following its Toronto world premiere, director Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix” immediately garnered raves, as well as some sidelong glances. But this anticipated followup to 2012’s much-adored “Barbara” is a sure contender for TIFF prizes, once again catapulting Petzold into the ranks of the top international filmmakers.
In a reeling postwar Berlin, Nina (played by Petzold’s muse-actress Nina Hoss), a now-unrecognizable Holocaust survivor and marred shadow of the woman she once was, returns to the man who may have betrayed her for his own sake and follows an ever-darkening path with her husband (Ronald Zehrfeld) to claim the fortune she was forced to leave behind.
Parallels between Petzold and Hitchcock have not gone unnoticed by critics, who’ve alluded to the great Brit director’s “Vertigo” in almost every review. Here’s a sampling of the buzz. Can audiences suspend disbelief long enough to become spellbound by Petzold? (English-subtitled trailer below.)
RogerEbert.com: “This is an amazing piece of work that transcends historical document to become art. Using the filmic language of noir, Petzold crafts a story of a culture caught in the aftermath of horror. Moving through the rubble of Berlin just after the end of World War II, the characters of ‘Phoenix’ are ghosts, denying past betrayals and putting up a façade to keep the pain repressed.”
THR: “Playing her greatest role to date, and one that relies on sheer restraint for much of the running time, Hoss channels her character’s deep physical and psychological wounds through a series of painstaking gestures, staring out at us from the abyss like a deer caught in the headlights over and over again. As Nelly comes into her own, transforming into the woman who existed before disappearing in the camps, Hoss literally finds a new voice – culminating in an explosive final scene that’s as perfect as they come, as if Petzold had built his entire movie around that one moment.”
Indiewire: “Zehrfield — who last portrayed Hoss’ love interest in ‘Barbara’ — plays his distraught character with an uneasy quality pitched between nervousness and outright frustration. Their scenes together form the bulk of the story, which unfolds with the mesmerizing focus of a grim chamber drama. Each exchange is steeped in fascinating ambiguity, as Johnny continues to insist that Nelly follows his orders. Petzold’s script drops subtle hints along the way that the man actually figures out Nelly’s identity and consciously blocks it out, a sophisticated form of denial at the root of the movie’s provocative themes.”
Huffington Post: “Yes, the premise may sound hokey, but once ‘Phoenix’ wraps you in its spell you’re caught. Partly because Petzold uses the setup to talk about German guilt over the past and Johnny’s way of circumventing it. The director’s use of close-ups is mesmerizing, as when the faces of these two fine actors fill the screen and their eyes lock as if trying to scan a truth they can’t reach. What American actress can deliver the bare-bones intensity of Nina Hoss? Her starkness matches Petzold’s vision of National Socialism, which, in his words, “created an abyss into which you’re thrown again and again.”
Slant: “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.”