Phoenix JDiff review: This postwar melodrama is almost ludicrous but raw performances make for a slice of seductive Berlin noir

Nina Hoss gives a raw, committed performance that holds the film together

Film Title: Phoenix

Director: Christian Petzold

Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Michael Maertens, Imogen Kogge

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 98 min

Thu, Mar 19, 2015, 01:00


The setting – the immediate postwar period in a flattened Germany – calls up reminders of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. But the plot is straight out of a US daytime soap opera. Nelly (Nina Hoss), a Jewish woman, now unrecognisable after reconstructive facial surgery, returns home and encounters Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the husband who seems to have betrayed her to the Nazis. Taking our heroine for a convincing lookalike, he suggests that Nelly pose as herself (keep up here) in order to claim a significant inheritance. Still unable to organise her feelings in a rational manner, Nelly agrees and the film sets off to ever-greater narrative convulsions.

In short, Phoenix is close to ludicrous, but Christian Petzold, director of the off-centre Yella and the gripping Barbara, extracts such a raw, committed performance from Hoss – the star of both those earlier films – that one almost manages to believe the unbelievable. As Johnny teaches her how to walk, how to speak and how to wear her hair, the film takes on the quality of a low-energy Vertigo infused with seductive Berlin noir.

The film’s most notable achievement is to flog us a broad melodrama while still saying serious things about the German postwar malaise. Fassbinder would have approved.