by Mark Wilshin
Loosely based on extracts from Hubert Monteilhet’s Le Retour Des Cendres, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix plays a dangerous game with its story of concentration camp survivor Nelly (Nina Hoss) returning to Berlin to find her husband Johnny (Roland Zehrfeld) who betrayed her to the Gestapo. There’s precedent of course, with Liliana Cavani’s seminal The Night Porter and more recently Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, but as she willingly submits to pretend to be Nelly in order to reclaim and share her assets, there’s a distasteful awkwardness to the insular frivolousness of it all – the male authority over female image of Hitchcock’s Vertigo transposed to Ground Zero 1945. Nevertheless, reuniting Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld from Petzold’s previous emotional hardhitter Barbara, there are some delightfully nuanced performances, an intelligent script and a deliciously spare evocation of the time. The story is redeemed by Nina’s final act of empowerment, but there are also some interesting ideas about returning to self and crafting the story of the Holocaust with gloss enough for people to bear. Unsettling and darkly ruminative, Phoenix is a thought-provoking polemic of representing the unrepresentable during the days of ashes and dust.
Phoenix is showing on Oct 15th & 16th at the 58th BFI London Film Festival