After exploring the Stasi period in “Barbara” German filmmaker Christian Petzold here goes a step backward to take in the aftermath of the Nazi debacle with his lens in “Phoenix,” a film currently being shown in Europe and headed for theatrical here in late 2015. As was the case in most of the filmmaker’s previous films the luminous actress Nina Hoss has the leading role, this time that of Nelly, a survivor of the Auschwitz camp (the freeing of Auschwitz by Allied forces seventy years ago was in fact marked last week).
After being hospitalized upon her return from internment, Nelly (Hoss) is offered the promise of a new face casually picked from a palette of fashionable models’ faces thanks to reconstructive surgery. But she turns down the offer: although she is assured that this is impossible, Nelly wants her pre-Nazi rampage face back, the one that her husband Johnny knew back in the days when they performed together on stage in Berlin’s dance halls until the Nazis tore her away from it all. And so she gets that old face back–more or less.
She then goes in search of Johnny and when she finds him, he refuses to recognize her, evidently not discerning in her his missing wife’s familiar traits. Instead, he makes her a bittersweet offer: he will teach her his wife’s demeanor, way of dress and pay her to get up on stage and dance with him. Nelly is crushed but agrees, so that she can be with her Johnny.
Who better to play Nelly than Hoss, a European actress little-known Stateside and unfortunately so. For “Phoenix” Petzold has partnered up with his frequent cinematographer collab Hans Fromm, to mind-blowing results. Their well-furnished playbook references Douglas Sirk, Jacques Tourneur’s “Out of the past” and Rossellini’s “Anno Unno” and the cinematography of “Phoenix” shows it (but then, you’ve seen “Barbara” and you already know the power of that collab).