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Sleeper of the Week: Christian Petzold’s ‘Phoenix’

Sleeper of the Week: Christian Petzold's 'Phoenix'

Sleeper of the Week takes a movie that only a few critics have seen and shines some light on it.

Dir: Christian Petzold
Criticwire Average: A-

Christian Petzold’s seventh film “Phoenix” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year to ecstatic, nearly unanimous critical praise for its classical style, nuanced performances, and phenomenal ending. In the film, Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss, who has starred in the last three Petzold films), a Jewish singer, has survived the Nazi death camps and has to undergo facial reconstruction after it was damaged by a gunshot wound. She returns to Berlin to search for her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the same man who denounced her to the Gestapo, but when she finds him, he doesn’t recognize her and insists she call him by a different name. But Johnny also believes Nelly can reasonably impersonate his dead former wife, so he wants to use her in a ruse to get his hands on her estate, a plan to which Nelly agrees. Though some have criticized “Phoenix” for its obvious homages and its preposterous plot, many have also praised its thematic depth, mainly placing viewers in the traumatized psychological state of a post-war Berlin. “Phoenix” will keep you rapt in the theater and occupy your mind long after you leave.

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

A.A. Dowd, The A.V. Club

Glancing down into the rubble of a collapsed building, Nelly Lenz catches her own reflection in a shard of broken glass and is shocked to discover that she doesn’t recognize the stranger staring back at her. It’s 1945, and Nelly, a Jewish chanteuse emerging from the living hell of Auschwitz, has lost her career, her family, and now her very appearance to the Nazis. The surgeons warned that the disfigured visage they reconstructed — a word of multiple meanings in postwar Germany — might look as unfamiliar to her as the bombed-out Berlin she’s returned to. But there’s really no preparing someone for the shock of unraveling rolls of bandages, only to find someone new waiting underneath. “I don’t exist,” is about all this traumatized survivor can stammer on first glimpse. That face, so foreign to the character wearing it, belongs in our reality to Nina Hoss, willowy star of the new new German cinema. “Phoenix” is the sixth film Hoss has made with director Christian Petzold — the others include “Jerichow” and “Barbara” — and it’s very much the culmination of their collaboration, rewarding the trust these two artists have placed in each other. Conflating personal and national identity in the aftermath of the war, this classically efficient psychodrama nods to movie history without slavishly imitating it. For what it sets out to accomplish, across a brisk 98 minutes, Petzold’s film feels perfectly judged. And it builds to an ending that’s just plain perfect. Read more.

Farran Smith Nehme, The New York Post

The film lingers on wreckage, of Berlin and of Nelly’s face, underlining how the fast, flashy postwar reconstruction merely papers over old crimes. More than a thriller, “Phoenix” is a ghost story, made plain in an extraordinary shot of Nelly’s terror at a passing train. Cinephiles will spot echoes ranging from (most obviously) “Vertigo” to “Eyes Without a Face,” but Petzold’s take on these themes is unique, and Hoss and Zehrfeld are magnificent actors. The final fade-out will haunt you for a long time. Read more.

Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com

How do we process unimaginable betrayal? How do we overcome the kind of events that forever alter the trajectory of a life we so desperately want back? These are just two of the questions addressed by Christian Petzold’s masterful “Phoenix,” a film that firmly cements its director as one of the most impressive working today. With echoes of “Vertigo,” and a deeply confident visual language, Petzold’s film resonates long after its perfect ending. This is a riveting piece of work that never loses sight of its human story while also serving as a commentary for how an entire country deals with tragedies like war. A film this satisfying on every level — one that can be enjoyed purely for its narrative while also providing material for hours of discussion on its themes — is truly rare. Read more.

Ella Taylor, NPR

The plot of “Phoenix” is preposterous on its face, and perhaps that’s the point: that after genocide, only the truly deluded can believe that history and reality can be rolled back, reinterpreted or flat-out denied. For all its realist veneer, “Phoenix” is as stylized and performative as the singers in the “Cabaret”-like nightclub where Johnny now works as a janitor. The movie’s rhythms slow into a stage play whose Spartan interiors are patrolled by a zombie-like Nelly, moving as stiffly as a robotic puppet in eternal thrall to its master. The director’s intended message for Germany needs no spelling out. True to genre and to the history it peels back, “Phoenix” boldly offers us a war without heroes, only ghosts of broken people moving through a broken world, searching in vain for their former selves. The shattering conclusion shocks all these ghosts awake with the one piece of incontrovertible evidence that no amount of Holocaust denial can cover up. Only thus can this phoenix rise from the ashes of her past, but you shouldn’t expect inspiration as it’s commonly understood. Instead, Petzold suggests that facing the truth may be as close as Nelly, and Germany, can ever get to an upbeat ending. Read more.

Matt Prigge, Metro

“Phoenix” involves elaborate plastic surgery, a man trying to grift his way into a fortune and a woman succumbing to a “Vertigo”-like transformation. It has a central premise that is beyond preposterous — the kind of deal that can be distractingly unrealistic to a certain type of viewer. And yet it never feels like a genre piece, and it never feels like a mere movie mash-up — “Seconds” meets “Black Books.” It plays like its own thing, which is to say a moody but clinical study of some truly uncomfortable ideas, and revolving around the Holocaust on top of that. It doesn’t just trick you into accepting its tall tale as the real deal; it runs deeper and more disturbing than that. Read more.

Eric Kohn, Indiewire

Christian Petzold’s post-Holocaust drama is based around a dubious premise: A German woman (Nina Hoss) emerges from the concentration camps with horrific facial scars, receives plastic surgery and rediscovers her husband in Berlin, where he fails to recognize her. Rather than revealing her identity, she allows him to believe she’s dead, only to wind up part of his scheme to have her pretend to be herself so he can claim her inheritance. But if “Phoenix” requires a certain suspension of disbelief to make its contained scenario work, the rewards of such a gamble speak for themselves. Petzold’s followup to the 2012 Hoss vehicle “Barbara” is a fascinating study of Holocaust trauma rendered in intimate terms. Read more.

A.O Scott, The New York Times

Mr. Petzold is not the kind of director to indulge in showy homages, but his films are nonetheless steeped in the cinematic styles and genres of the past. “Jerichow” was a re-imagining of “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” “Barbara,” set in East Germany in the 1980s, was a suspenseful romantic melodrama, and in both cases Ms. Hoss evoked the blond hauteur and old-Hollywood heat of Lana Turner. With its themes of suppressed desire and mistaken identity, “Phoenix” has more than a touch of “Vertigo,” but instead of Hitchcockian psychological puzzles, it explores unsolvable and perhaps unspeakable moral conundrums. Or at least it tries. Never less than intriguing, coolly intelligent and flawlessly paced, “Phoenix” often feels trapped in the logic of its conceit. Neither the full horror nor the absurdity of Nelly’s situation registers, partly because the self-conscious genre touches keep her story at a distance. Mr. Petzold has made a suave and suspenseful entertainment that doesn’t seem entirely sure that it wants to be — or is able to be — more. It comes closest at the very end, in a final scene that infuses an old popular song with the full weight of cruelty, betrayal and hope. Read more.

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