It’s quite a feat that accomplished German director Christian Petzold (Barbara) has pulled off with his devastating new pic Phoenix.
That he manages to so eloquently craft this captivating story of love, identity, deceit and guilt within 94 minutes is as much testament to his considerable skill, as it is to his lead actress and regular muse, Nina Hoss. Through her exquisitely expressive face she conveys much of the film’s mystery, complexity and power. Even when that face is completely bandaged, as it is during the opening scenes, the intrigue is elicited through her eyes and lasts well beyond the film’s duration. Hoss plays Nelly, a concentration camp survivor who in the final days of Hitler’s rule, suffers a gunshot wound to her face. The image of her and other patients wandering hospital corridors in newly dressed bandages after their facial reconstructions is haunting. It is one of many scenes in which Petzold creates a subtle, yet rich allegorical text around his key themes – the Holocaust, regeneration (as the title also alludes to), the notion of ‘self’, and the mechanics of cinematic illusion itself. Once Nelly finds her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who doesn’t recognise her but sees enough resemblance to the wife he believes is dead to want to make her into her own former self, the parallels to Hitchcock’s Vertigo are obvious. Unlike that film, Phoenix is less concerned with the inner darkness of the male psyche and sexual obsession, as it is with Nelly’s ultimate motivation. Petzold and his astonishing star amp up the suspense as a slow burn, revealing little and much, keeping you guessing through each turn, until the utterly riveting final scene. It is a bravura performance by both the director and Hoss that so perfectly concludes this masterful film, it is as close to what Hitch coined ‘pure cinema’ as you will find.