Phoenix (2014)


Movie a Day Blog has a new favorite European actress: Nina Hoss, who I am dubbing the Meryl Streep of contemporary German cinema, given the astonishing breadth and depth of her screen performances.

Hoss grabbed the screen in BARBARA (2012), directed by Christian Petzold, playing a cynical East German doctor banished to a small town because of her suspect political views. She followed that with a small but vital role in A MOST WANTED MAN (2014), Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final film and an underrated political thriller. In both films, she was riveting.

Now Hoss and Petzold team up again in PHOENIX (2014), a fascinating if sometimes obtuse drama set in immediate post-war Germany, a defeated nation whose surviving citizens will try anything to get by.

The hook for this story is a zinger: Hoss is a concentration camp survivor whose face was mutilated by a Nazi sadist. She gets reconstructive surgery as the film opens, in a vain attempt to capture what must have been a true beauty.

She also wants to find her husband, whom she hopes to find alive in bombed-out Berlin. What she doesn’t know at first, although a mysterious and overly-wise companion warns her, is that he betrayed her to the Gestapo, and divorced her immediately after her arrest.

When she turns up on his doorstep, he doesn’t recognize her. But her vague resemblance to his former wife leads him to enlist her in his scheme to pass off this scarred survivor as his wife miraculously returned to collect her family’s surviving fortune.

I have already said too much, but Petzold and Hoss are clearly sympathetic collaborators and the development of Hoss’ character from stunned wonder at the sight of her beloved, to her final twist of the knife in the final scene, is a wonder to behold.

Every movement of eyes, mouth, hand and body communicate character and emotion; you can’t take your eyes off Hoss in PHOENIX.

Petzold is an accomplished director in the 21st century version of the New German Cinema, with 14 films to his credit, many of those German TV movies.

It’s a great training ground for European directors that many American filmmakers are just now experiencing for the first time with the explosion of streaming programming from Netflix, Amazon, etc.

PHOENIX is not without its flaws. I found some of the transitions jarring because the time frame can be difficult to figure out; we discern it mostly by Hoss’ facial healing. As the evil husband Johnny, Ronald Zehrfeld doesn’t show great range. He’s either scheming or angry, and frequently both.

It’s a pleasure in contemporary cinema to see a well thought-out premise with an ending that is so appealing because it’s both clever and righteous. This is a German story to its roots, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Petzold tackling a Hollywood film at some time in the near future. He’s got what it takes to make a great actress greater.