Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome, went the words welcoming the viewer to the seedy night haunts of pre-WWII Berlin in John Kander and Fred Ebb's popular musical adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin stories, Cabaret. This came to mind because the crux of German director Christian Petzold's latest film lies in a seedy night haunt in post-WWII Berlin, a cabaret by the name of Phoenix, where a woman in search of the husband she lost track of (but really in search of herself) will come and find more than she bargained for.
In that cabaret, Mr. Petzold has both Cole Porter and Kurt Weill be performed by the resident singers and players; and just as in Mr. Isherwood's stories, the cabaret is both a respite from the world outside and a constant reminder of it. This is Berlin just after the war has ended, rationing cards, checkpoints, buildings reduced to rubble, people getting by as best they can and just wanting to leave behind the past. But not Nelly (Nina Hoss), the woman Mr. Petzold follows into Phoenix: if anything, she is hanging to the past, to the life she led before, before she had to hid from the authorities for being Jewish, before she was found and caught and taken to a concentration camp, before she survived and had to undergo plastic surgery.
Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), her friend who works at the Jewish Agency and who is helping Nelly get back on her feet, finding her a surgeon, an apartment, wants her to make a clean break and move to Palestine to start anew, away from all the bad memories. But Nelly is hanging on to the memory of Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the husband she lost track of, the man Lene suspects of having given her location to the nazis.
As Nelly walks through Berlin in search of him, Phoenix unfolds in front of our eyes as a dazzling but not pointless exercise in cinephilia: a film that evokes simultaneously the darkness and doubt of the American post-war film noir but also the testimonial aspect of the Italian neo-realism (Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City and Germany Year Zero come both to mind), the double-cross, morally equivocal feel of something like Carol Reed's The Third Man and the carefully stage-managed back-and-forth twisting of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. Because, yes, Nelly, superbly portrayed by Ms. Hoss like a blank slate looking to regain its shape, allows herself to be buffeted by those around her, by a Lene that wants her to start from scratch and a Johnny that doesn't recognize her and wants her to pass herself off as Nelly as she was then.
Mr. Petzold's script is as difficult to summarize without giving away its many layers as it is crystallinely presented and filmed: it's all about love, about people looking for love in an era when love is apparently impossible, about losing it and recovering it and letting it go and holding on to it. Following on from the already excellent Barbara, Phoenix takes the director's cool, clinical approach to storytelling one step further, its constant referencing of previous films existing not as show-off or crutch but as the presentation of a lineage the film deliberately invokes while defining itself as its own film - very much like Ms. Hoss' equally minutely detailed performance reminds of Ingrid Bergman or Kim Novak yet stands out as its own beast, confirming the unique relationship that the actress and Mr. Petzold have forged over 15 years and half a dozen features. She is the film's true phoenix, who rises reborn from the flames but, in wanting to recapture her own past, realises how much of it she has to let go of for good - and all of it is felt and shown rather spoken.
Everything in Phoenix lies openly unspoken, but you will understand all of it.
Germany, Poland 2014
Cast Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf
Director Christian Petzold; screenwriters Mr. Petzold with Harun Farocki; inspired by the novel by Hubert Monteilhet Return from the Ashes cinematographer Hans Fromm (colour, widescreen); composer Stefan Will; designer K. D. Gruber; costumes Anette Guther; editor Bettina Böhler; producers Florian Koerner von Gustorf and Michael Weber; production companies Schramm Film Koerner & Weber in co-production with Bayerischer Rundfunk, Westdeutscher Rundfunk and ARTE, in association with Tempus Film
Screened April 7th 2015, Lisbon, distributor screener