The leading figure of Germany’s current wave of cinema, Christian Petzold reunites with his Hitchcock-blonde muse Nina Hoss in “Phoenix.” She plays Nelly, a disfigured concentration camp survivor who, rendered unrecognizable by facial reconstruction surgery, returns to the dross of postwar Berlin in search of the piano-playing husband (Ronald Zehrfeld) who may have sold her out to the Nazis. Once a singer, Nelly finds him bussing tables in a jazz bar. He doesn’t recognize her, which enables her to investigate his betrayal under the guise of another woman.
The film’s central conceit of a woman impersonating herself is a tricky device to pull off, but the gimmick soon vanishes under the spell of Petzold’s ravishingly beautiful direction and Hoss’ lean and understated portrayal. “Phoenix,” despite its anemic Berlin surroundings, has the color palette of a melodrama and a black noirish wit. It’s a Holocaust story by way of “Vertigo” or “Eyes without a Face,” with one of the grandest, most jaw-droppingly devastating movie endings ever.
Petzold and Hoss last paired for “Barbara,” a 2012 wartime melo where she plays a hardened doctor transplanted from East Germany to a provincial country hospital in the 1980s. Another high-point of their collaboration—which is one of the most exciting in cinema right now—is Petzold’s “Yella” (2007) a frightening marital psychodrama that evokes a modern “Carnival of Souls.” (You can stream it on Fandor.)