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Why ‘Phoenix’ Finally Makes Christian Petzold a New Arthouse Auteur

Why 'Phoenix' Finally Makes Christian Petzold a New Arthouse Auteur

If “Phoenix” can harness the steam off its first weekend in New York, where the postwar drama earned nearly $30,000 at two theaters, it could become a runaway arthouse hit a la last year’s Polish-language “Ida.”

In the US, German cinema is carried by its more broadly known, art-household names such as Michael Haneke (who is Austrian), Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, who often co-produce with other countries and rarely work in their native tongue anymore. Christian Petzold, after two decades of work, stands to be the country’s latest candidate for an art film figurehead as “Phoenix” expands this weekend in Los Angeles.

Petzold’s longtime muse Nina Hoss changed his tune as a director, yielding a collaboration on six features together—and all about women. His 2012 wartime melo “Barbara,” starring Hoss as a hardened doctor transplanted from East Germany to a provincial country hospital in the 1980s, sent critics in raptures. The Berlinale Silver Bear went on to represent Germany at the Oscars, though it did not crack the final five. (“Phoenix” opened in Germany on September 25, 2014, just shy of the October 1 eligibility cutoff for the 88th Academy Awards.)

READ MORE: Arthouse Audit: Is “Phoenix” This Year’s “Ida”?

Before “Phoenix” and “Barbara,” Petzold and Hoss also shot James M. Cain-inspired “Jerichow” (2008) and the spare chiller “Yella” (2007), which lifted loosely from Herk Harvey’s 1962 B-classic “Carnival of Souls.” “Phoenix,” co-written by Petzold and Harun Farocki, finds his Hitchcock-blonde leading lady once again in the playground of meta-cinema. She plays Nelly, a disfigured concentration camp survivor who, rendered unrecognizable by facial reconstruction surgery, returns to 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 cabaret. He doesn’t recognize her, allowing her to investigate his possible betrayal under the guise of another woman.

The gimmicky nature of this conceit of a impersonating herself soon vanishes under the spell of Petzold’s ravishingly beautiful direction and Hoss, whose intense face—a storm of torment and also serenity—is a showstopper in itself. This is a Holocaust story by way of “Vertigo” or “Eyes without a Face,” with one of the grandest, most jaw-droppingly devastating movie endings ever—which Petzold discusses with me, below. Mild spoilers ahead.

He’s calling from his hotel in Sacramento, where his son’s waiting in the lobby, sitting patiently on their suitcases. They’re on a road trip, “doing the father-son thing,” as Petzold says. After seeing “Boyhood,” Petzold’s son convinced him to travel the West, “in cheap motels because he loves the atmosphere of the video games he’s playing.” Petzold doesn’t like it here because he can’t smoke. “You can smoke in Vegas,” I tell him, which is where they’re headed next. “That’s wonderful!” the director says.

Ryan Lattanzio: Last weekend, “Phoenix” opened very well in New York at the box office. You must be chuffed.

Someone told me the numbers one hour ago but I don’t have relations to this. I don’t know what this means. I think they like it, the distributor [IFC Films], but I don’t know anything because I’m in Sacramento. In this town, there is no cinema. Yesterday I had to walk five, six miles through this town. No cinema.

How did “Phoenix” play in Germany last Fall?

It was nine months ago. It worked quite okay in Germany, not like “Barbara,” because the Germans love anti-communist movies and they hate anti-fascist movies. They don’t like movies about the Holocaust where you can’t see any Nazis. There are no Nazi uniforms, no pictures of Adolf Hitler. They love the entertainment of the Nazis. The actors like to play Nazis, to have the bad, brutal German language and pronouncing and this bad behavior. I don’t think they like movies of survivors of the camps who came back to Germany. “Phoenix” was also famous but not like “Barbara.”

Why, then, did you want to set “Phoenix” as a postwar story?

I always thought with Harun Farocki, “Why don’t we have postwar movies in Germany?” Harun, who was my teacher, taught us why there is neo-realism in Italy. It’s a cinema that researches its own country. What happens after Mussolini? What stories can we tell? The Germans don’t have this postwar neorealism or rebuilding or reconstruction of cinema. We thought for 15 years, Harun and me, about “Phoenix” and after we made “Barbara” and he saw it on the editing table, he said, “Now we can do ‘Phoenix’ because we changed the perspective from the male to the female.” We thought always about the men living in Germany, and the woman is coming, and she looks like his wife and he wants to recreate it. At this moment, when we changed the perspective, it was really new for us. Then we started writing.

You reunite with Nina Hoss. How long have you known her and what drew you to each other?

It was 2001, we had made our first film together [“Something to Remind Me”]. I think it was the third day of shooting. She was playing the main female character. I’d always thought about the male character. There was a scene where she had to walk from a house to another house where she wanted to torture a man. The camera is there, she’s walking 35 meters, with her back to the camera and I was so impressed about this walk. I don’t know why. It was so self-confident and in the same way it was frightened, the body. I was so impressed, and then Nina and me we thought about all that walking in movies is like a monologue, an internal monologue. We went together to the cinema and looked at movies in English, and how their characters walked. I’d never found an intelligent actress like her before.

Are you thinking about Nina when you’re writing now?

With “Barbara” and “Phoenix,” I had written with her in my mind. “Yella” too. The others I wrote without thinking about her. In these three movies, when I have the first draft of the script, I give her the script and she makes comments and I like that. I don’t feel that I’ve lost my authority because she has a perspective of the script. Like an architect, who’s building a model of a house, and he has the possibility that someone has to live in this house, so they say, “Okay, this window, I don’t like so much.”

What kind of notes does she give you?

Never story, always character. She never talks about the story. She’s looking for a story for the character. There was one really surprising moment during our shooting of “Phoenix.” We shot the movie chronologically. In the middle of our work, something was in my mind, and I said to her, “Nina, it’s like if you are born in the concentration camp, or someone finds you in the camp, you are born in the hospital, where you get your new face. You have a youth in the house of your friend, and you go out in the night like someone who’s looking for love and the parents are sleeping. This is a biography.” And then she starts smiling and said, “Yes, this is the road I’ve worked on.” She creates herself out of the camps, for a new biography. These are the comments she is always thinking about. We saw together “Nosferatu” and other films about ghosts and she said, “There must be mirrors in the movie because the vampires can’t see themselves in mirrors and I can’t recognize myself in the mirror because I have a new face. I’ve lost my face.”

Were you thinking about any American films, or film noir? “Vertigo” is a movie that “Phoenix” often is connected to, and I see a loose homage there. But tell me more.

We had one week of rehearsals and we saw so many movies. I don’t like rehearsals like in theater. It’s just to bring yourself and the ensemble into a mood, or into the idea of the movie. We don’t take the script and try to rehearse scenes. In this seven days of rehearsal, we saw so many movies and the only movie we hadn’t seen was “Vertigo” because everyone had seen it. It has nothing to do with “Phoenix” because we changed the perspective. “Vertigo” is about a man who is impotent, who lost his sexuality, and he kills a woman to get it back. For “Phoenix,” “Vertigo” was the wrong way.

We had seen “People on Sunday” by Billy Wilder, “Voyage of Italy” by Roberto Rossellini about the end of love, we had seen “The Killers” by Robert Siodmak. We have movies from German directors, from the beginning of the ’30s before the Nazi era and these movies are affirmative to life. They create a new cinema, like the Nouvelle Vague, and then the same directors have to leave Germany because of the Nazis and they create film noir, like Billy Wilder with “Lost Weekend” and Edgar G. Ulmer’s “Detour.” This was our idea. What has happened between “People on Sunday” and “Lost Weekend”? This is the German history. The positive light from Berlin left and had to go to Hollywood to become the film noir life, the life of shadows and the darkness. This is the German story.

Where were you shooting? Did you build any sets, or were you scouting actual locations?

We made most of the movie 50 kilometers away from Berlin, building old houses there like in a studio but we did it ourselves, without a studio. It’s the same house in which we shot “Barbara.” What we can’t make in Germany are street scenes, which we had to do in Poland. There are streets, like in the ’30s and ’40s. These streets are destroyed not by the war but by a mixture of post-communism and capitalism, but it looks like war there.

Let’s talk about the end of the movie. How did you direct that scene? Were those images always in your mind, or were you working your way toward?

[Don’t read further until you’ve seen “Phoenix.”]

There was no image in my mind but in the script I had written “She stops singing, and she leaves the room.” The sentence has an atmosphere but it’s not a picture. Because we are shooting chronologically, we always thought about the end of the movie and how we could do that. Each day we thought, “How do we do that?” It was an original scene. We had two cameras, so we did it just one time, in one take. And she’s really singing. There’s no studio. And the piano is really there.

So you left the decision of how to play this scene up to your actors?

We don’t know when Nina wants to end the singing and we don’t know when the piano will end its playing, so we don’t really rehearse. We wait for six, seven hours at this place until the actors and all of us are in a good mood for shooting. In this seven hours, the cameraman said to me, “Okay when she’s leaving, I can follow her with the Steadicam because the light is fantastic outside.” I said “No, we can’t, because if we follow her, we are also leaving Germany, with her together.” But we have to stay. This is the metaphor of the end. We have to stay with the others, and she is leaving. Nina starts singing, and she stops in this line [“Speak Low”], which Kurt Weill has written, “I wait for you.” She’s singing “I wait for you,” and her voice breaks and she stops singing. I love this moment because her whole body and soul understand that she had waited for him but he will never come back, and so she must go by herself.

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