When Christian Petzold makes a thriller, it's nothing like the jokey, disclaiming neo-noirs we see so much of these days. His movies, set in critical periods of German history, are also love letters to the classic film noirs of Hollywood's Golden Age: The Postman Always Rings Twice looms over his 2008 film Jerichow, which features his longtime muse, Nina Hoss, as a woman with a crippling secret who plots murder with an Afghanistan war veteran.
Petzold's films are immensely watchable for their dark beauty alone, but they also mean business as tough-minded inquiries into the many faces of Germany's lost soul under the long shadow of World War II. In Yella (2007), Hoss was an abused wife who's also pathologically attached to a Western venture capitalist. And in the magnificent Barbara (2012), she played an East German doctor exiled to the countryside for trying to escape to the West before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Whatever the time, place, or circumstance, Petzold asks whether love and integrity are possible under conditions of corrupt repression.
Petzold's latest film, Phoenix, is based on the French novel Return From the Ashes, which was made into a largely forgotten 1965 British policier starring Ingrid Thulin and Maximilian Schell. Phoenix opens in despair where most World War II films close in hope. It's 1945, Berlin is a mess of ruins and ruined lives, one of which is Hoss' Nelly, a Jewish concentration camp survivor and former nightclub singer returning to her former home under the protective wing of her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf).
With her taut intensity and enormous dark eyes, Hoss harks back to Garbo and Dietrich in the kind of full-throated melodramas we seem to have little stomach for these days. She can play victim or femme fatale or both, but here she's a crushed woman in every sense, her face is swathed in bandages from reconstructive surgery after a terrible final injury in the camp. Lene means to carry Nelly off to Palestine, where they will be free to embrace the Jewish identity they were denied by the Nazis.
Even after the camps, though, Nelly still doesn't consider herself Jewish; she embodies the singular pathos of a highly assimilated community of German Jews who identified as Germans first and Jews second. Many never saw, or refused to see their annihilation coming; Nelly is all that remains of her family. Yet she wants only to return to the past she shared with her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may have betrayed her to the Nazis. Wandering the streets of nighttime Berlin while her new face heals, she finds Johnny, who doesn't recognize her. Struck by her resemblance to the wife he's taken for dead, though, he enlists the subservient Nelly in a conspiracy that, he promises, will enrich them both. Together, they descend into the shadowy Hades of a corrupt and lawless Berlin where even the American liberators come across as heedless and cruel.
The plot of Phoenix is preposterous on its face, and perhaps that's the point: that after genocide, only the truly deluded can believe that history and reality can be rolled back, reinterpreted or flat-out denied. For all its realist veneer, Phoenix is as stylized and performative as the singers in the Cabaret-like nightclub where Johnny now works as a janitor. The movie's rhythms slow into a stage play whose Spartan interiors are patrolled by a zombie-like Nelly, moving as stiffly as a robotic puppet in eternal thrall to its master. The director's intended message for Germany needs no spelling out.
True to genre and to the history it peels back, Phoenix boldly offers us a war without heroes, only ghosts of broken people moving through a broken world, searching in vain for their former selves. The shattering conclusion shocks all these ghosts awake with the one piece of incontrovertible evidence that no amount of Holocaust denial can cover up. Only thus can this phoenix rise from the ashes of her past, but you shouldn't expect inspiration as it's commonly understood. Instead, Petzold suggests that facing the truth may be as close as Nelly, and Germany, can ever get to an upbeat ending.