A Shadow Out of the Past

in 62nd San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Paulo Portugal

It wouldn’t be far from the truth to say that German director Christian Petzold is one of the few filmmakers who can indulge in the luxury of working in what we might call a classical style. Each time he begins a new project, he engages in an intimate process with his very small, familial team. With this little group of actors and technicians, he retreats to a private place in Berlin where everyone can celebrate cinema in its pure form. A few books, a selection of films, and endless discussions about cinema.

At least, this is what I gathered from a pleasant conversation with Petzold in San Sebastian. He explained his method after a mesmerizing screening of his new film Phoenix. This is a film which haunts and is haunted. It is a true gem in the main competition of the 62nd edition of the Zinemaldia. Phoenix combines the density of a post-war exorcism with the tone of the classic masters.

Petzold has already introduced us to his dense and rigorous version of cinema. Only two years after he received the Silver Bear in Berlin for Barbara, an intriguing narrative set in the GDR, he presents us with Phoenix, a profound drama which reawakens Germany’s post-war ghosts. It is a romance as veiled as it is disturbing; Petzold worked with the late, talented Harun Farocki on the script, adapting the French novel La Retour des Cendres by Hubert Monteilhet.

Faithful to his core group, Petzold reunites with his actrice fétiche Nina Hoss and the actor Ronald Zehrfeld, the couple from Barbara. Hoss plays Nelly, the only surviving member of a wealthy Jewish family who experienced the horrors of Auschwitz; Zehrfeld plays her husband. After the war, Nelly returns dehumanized; her face disfigured and subsequently altered through surgery. She tries to find her soulmate Johnny (Zehrfeld), a pianist she used to play with in Berlin.

Nelly recognizes Johnny but is not recognized in return. She decides to be his mistress so that he can inherit her fortune. Thus Nelly plays “herself”, an ordeal which brings to mind the character played by Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958). However, this film is not about a man who falls for a woman who does not exist; it concerns a woman who tries to recapture her husband by playing her own role.

Of course, this story would not have such an impact if not for the combination of a clever script, great filmmaking, history, and some of the best acting we’ve seen in a long time. A whirlwind of emotions crowns the film’s final climax: can Nelly face reality after this experience? Can Johnny recover what he has lost?

Instead of regarding Nelly as the titular phoenix, Petzold prefers to see the character’s reincarnation as a metaphor for a Germany which seeks to rise from the ashes. Phoenix is deeply rooted in an aesthetic which attempts to evoke the light and cinematography of the great German masters. This gives the film the tone of a classic melodrama and a genuine masterpiece.

Edited by Lesley Chow