When discussing iconic actor-director duos, the teams of John Ford and John Wayne, Francois Truffaut and Jean Pierre Leaud, Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa, Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, and Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese (among many others) spring easily to mind. Yet today, there may be no greater pairing than that of German director Christian Petzold and his favorite leading lady Nina Hoss, whose sixth collaboration over the past 13 years, the remarkable Phoenix, arrives in theaters this weekend. While hardly household names here in the States, Petzold and Hoss have spent the past decade-plus making some of international cinema’s finest works, and their newest offering again cements their relationship as one of the movies’ most fertile, exciting, and daring.
Phoenix recounts the post-WWII saga of Nelly (Hoss), who’s introduced with her face covered in bandages as she and her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) cross back into Germany through an American checkpoint. A former singer who’s recently been released, badly scarred, from Auschwitz, Nelly has inherited her murdered family’s fortune, which Lene—who shares more than just a sisterly affection for her friend—insists she use to move to the new Jewish state being formed in Palestine. Nelly, however, wants to find her burly pianist husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), even though Lene claims that it was Johnny who betrayed Nelly to the Nazis. Eventually locating Johnny at a local club called the Phoenix under the name Johannes, Nelly—whose face has been “reconstructed” by a surgeon to resemble her old visage—is shocked to discover that Johnny doesn’t recognize her as his wife, though he does sense something about her, because he soon convinces Nelly to pose as his wife so that he can collect her inheritance for himself.
Nelly goes along with this plan, and what ensues is a tale of both literal and figurative rebirth, with Nelly willfully being recast in her former image by her husband—a Phoenix-esque resurrection that speaks to Nelly’s desire to recapture the past, to Johnny’s guilt over his actions, and to Germany’s willful blindness to its own Nazi war crimes. It’s a complex stew of the political and the personal, all of it filtered through a haze of old movie references, with Eyes Without a Face, Vertigo, and film noir serving as the primary influences for its identity-reformation narrative and rubble-strewn Berlin locales. It’s a film about post-WWII German consciousness, about individual reactions to trauma and treachery, and about the intertwined relationship between love and money—a chilling period piece that plays out like a thriller of the most haunting, nightmarish order.
That, in turn, marks it as a kindred spirit to Petzold and Hoss’s prior collaborations, which began with the Vertigo-inspired 2002 TV movie Something to Remind Me, and then segued to the big screen with 2003’s Wolfsburg. That drama, about a car salesman (Benno Fürmann) who accidentally runs over a child, only to then strike up a romantic relationship with his victim’s mother (Hoss), laid the groundwork for Petzold and Hoss’s partnership. Fixated on the ways in which modern capitalistic paradigms (employment, financial needs, etc.) influence human relationships, and rooted in images of cars, trains, buses, bicycles, and water that underline how its characters are in a state of perpetual transition—if not outright transformation—Wolfsburg is a stark, incisive morality play about individual and national concerns, and helped solidify Petzold’s standing as the leading light of the 1990s “Berlin School” (aka German New Wave).
It’s also a film dominated by the performance of Hoss, an angular beauty whose comportment can shift from timid and reserved to tough and ruthless in a moment’s notice. Routinely playing survivors determined to remake themselves, post-loss, in some fundamental way, Hoss has a tendency to encase her character’s wounded emotions in a steely exterior. The result is that she often seems caught between competing desires (forgiveness and vengeance, relief and rage, acceptance and conflict), if not outright trapped between the worlds of the living and the dead, whether she’s a ghostly accountant who emerges from an auto accident to rebuild her professional life in 2007’s Yella, or she’s a femme fatale convincing a former soldier to help her murder her husband in 2008’s The Postman Always Rings Twice-inspired Jerichow, or she’s a 1980s doctor trying to decide whether to flee her rural enclave for the West in 2012’s stunning Barbara.
In all of those films, what Petzold and Hoss share is the sort of unspoken kinship that defines the best actor-director pairings. Petzold’s compositions are clean and exacting, even as his stories often drift into somewhat dreamy, hallucinatory territory. As such, his storytelling and aesthetics are wholly in tune with Hoss, whose sharp-features beauty can be used to express intimidating self-possession and craftiness, as well as vulnerability and soul-deep disorientation. With eyes that shift on a dime between unyielding and exposed, Hoss embodies Petzold’s interest in the intersection between various cultural and emotional forces, which occur in some sort of old-movie netherspace that’s populated by near-dead people who are constantly coming and going in search of themselves and some unreachable happiness. She’s the zombie queen of his cinema of socio-economic-romantic confusion.
That’s never been truer than in Phoenix, which marries the period-piece trappings of 2012’s Barbara (the first of Petzold’s films to be set in the past) with the more Hitchockian genre-y suspense of Yella and Jerichow. As Nelly allows her husband to stitch her back together with makeup, a red dress, and high heels, she becomes at once more distinctive and yet more dead than ever, an ethereal approximation of who she once was—an idea that’s furthered by repeated shots of Nelly in silhouette, her face obscured by darkness. Hoss plays Nelly like someone who’s driven to follow through on her plan in the desperate hope that, when it’s done, her husband will see that she’s really his wife, even as she seems to be almost sleepwalking through an unholy purgatorial landscape where no one recognizes her, or deliberately chooses not to.
Such sightlessness speaks to Germany’s own reckoning with its Nazi ancestry, as becomes evident in Phoenix’s final sequence, which [no spoilers here] involves a piano-and-song musical number that caps Nelly’s journey toward reactualization. Staged by Petzold with a deft mix of performance and crowd shots, Nelly’s return to the stage culminates with an absolutely powerhouse central image/moment of confrontation and revelation. It’s perhaps the year’s most unforgettable final scene, and though it ends with a loss of focus, it clearly reconfirms the ongoing greatness of Petzold and Hoss’s peerless creative marriage.