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Surviving the Shipwreck: Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss on "Phoenix"

Christian Petzold’s brilliant and fascinating new Holocaust drama “Phoenix” marks his sixth collaboration with the superb actress Nina Hoss. She plays the Auschwitz survivor Nelly, a Jewish singer who endured unspeakable emotional and physical terror. Repatriated to a ruined postwar Berlin, her face badly disfigured by complications of a bullet wound, Nelly is given the chance at a new identity following her facial reconstruction.

I want to look like I used to,” she demands. As incarnated by Hoss with a soulful intensity, Nelly is a solitary figure whose desire to reclaim her past makes possible the movie’s eerie mad scientist-inflected scenario. A gifted chanteuse who evaded the Gestapo until late in the war, Nelly has discovered her entire family was liquidated in the death camps. The story kicks in after Nelly is reunited with her husband, the cold opportunist Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, who played opposite Hoss in Petzold’s excellent 2012 “Barbara”).

A German pianist turned small-time operator at the eponymous nightclub in the American sector, Johnny does not recognize Nelly as his wife though believes she is a passable double. He convinces Nelly to appropriate the identity of the falsely assumed dead woman in order to claim her inheritance. He conditions her to essentially inhabit her own skin, fastidiously instructing her on how to walk, talk and even write her name.

The movie is freely adapted from a novel by French writer Hubert Monteilhet that previously served as the basis of the 1965 J. Lee Thompson thriller, “Return from the Ashes.” Steeped in Greek tragedy, the movie is also a fever dream that riffs on Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and Georges Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face.” The psychological tension turns on whether Nelly is a traumatized dupe whose obsessive, unquestioned love for Johnny underlines a deeper pathology or a free-thinker whose complicity in the plot is a chance for her to uncover the details of her husband’s actions leading to her arrest.

The film has generated rapturous critical praise and highly promising early audience response that suggests a long-overdue breakout for the German filmmaking team. On the eve of the film’s national expansion, I spoke to Petzold and Hoss separately. I have woven together the two strands for the following conversation.

One of the fascinating qualities of “Phoenix” is how it functions as a corollary or continuation of your previous film, “Barbara,” not just because of the same two lead actors, but how both films meditate on history and memory.

Christian Petzold: Ten years ago I told [filmmaker and screenwriter] Harun Farocki, “I never want to make a period film. I hate it. I hate costumes. I hate stagecoaches.” I want to make movies about our times. He gave me a quotation about [theoretical sociologist Theodor] Adorno, who said: “It’s not a question of what the old times will say to us. It’s a question of what we can say to the old times.” We started working on two period pictures. When Harun and I were sitting at the editing table and I showed him the final cut of “Barbara,” he said: “First we had the love couple, and now you can show the destruction of the love, and you have to use the same actors.”

Nina Hoss: I always have the feeling with Christian that his movies are really about German identity, or about individuals in search of their own identity. Someone like Barbara, she makes up her mind of who she is and what she stands for and what she is not going to go along with, and that makes her who she is and what she becomes. Within the social environment, you watch how that forms a personality or an individual. It’s the same with “Phoenix.” These characters are in situations they have to go through or experience things. As they begin to understand more about life, of who they want to be or what their strengths are, everything they hold up becomes a mirror. You don’t want to be the picture that they want to see.

I was very interested in your friendship with Harun Farocki. He was a great filmmaker, but he made these almost unclassifiable essay films, like “How to Live in the Federal Republic of Germany,” that were so different from your films. I was very curious about your friendship and your working methods.

Christian Petzold: He was the editor of a film magazine called Filmkritik—like Rolling Stone for the movies. His name was always attached to the best articles. And then we met at a football [soccer] match. In our work together, everybody thought that Harun was the cold-blooded intellectual and I was the warm-blooded, emotional guy. It was totally the other way around. I’m the constructor in the stories, and Harun was always on the side of emotion. I was a little bit like the engineer. I think he liked that because with his own documentaries, he’s the engineer.

We are walking through Berlin together, for 25 years, twice a week, looking at houses, talking about stories, historical or contemporary stories, talking about books, and sometimes we had an idea. I’d write the script and send it to him, and then we’d go out for a new walk and talk about the things I had written. This was our collaboration. In 1978, he was the editor of a long interview with Paul Schrader. Harun loved this very much, because Paul Schrader said: “You have to talk the idea of a story to everybody you know.”

The whole film’s existence is predicated on a supreme dramatic risk about Johnny not being able to identify his actual wife. The more literal minded are likely to be resistant to the very structure.

Christian Petzold: We read three or four books by [Austrian essayist] Jean Amery. After he survived Auschwitz, he wrote in one essay, about being in a camp for displaced persons, and how after he came back to Germany, he thought the people there would embrace him and show their interest in forming a new society. He came back and nobody looked at him. Friends didn’t recognize him. His friends had cut him not only of their memories but also out of their senses. He said, “I’m like a ghost.” At this moment, the idea was borne to Harun and I, and we came up with the idea that Johnny can’t recognize her. His body recognizes her a little bit. He wants to touch her, a glance in his eyes, for a little moment, but in his soul, she does not exist anymore.

Farocki was also very influenced by Bertolt Brecht. There is a Brechtian quality to your role, because of the circumstances of the story, a woman pretending to be her actual self. For you, is the whole film a meditation on acting and performance?

Nina Hoss: I didn’t think about any of this. I think about it now. I see that now. While I was working on it, I was really trying to create this character and understand why she would go along with [the plot], and find out how damaged this person is, so that something like this story could be possible. She believes he doesn’t recognize her, because she doesn’t know herself who she is. These are very damaged people, and things are not normal. That was more of what I was thinking of, about how deeply emotional the experience was. I was very aware of these questions, about representation and identity, but I didn’t allow myself to go down that [path] because it’s an analytical point of view. I wanted to dive [into the character] without thinking about that.

Were the dynamics different for you playing against Ronald Zehrfeld this time?

Nina Hoss: He was struggling a little bit. We loved so much this couple in “Barbara,” because it ended kind of hopeful. You felt they were in love, and no matter how the story ends they’re going to be strong together. You try it and you give love a chance. We had quite a tough time to let go of this idea. In “Phoenix,” this couple might have the same feeling at the end, because I think all of us, we maybe had the hope and the [further] the story goes, you realize it is not possible, and that it probably will not go well. The beauty of working again is you can go through stages and talk about it and rekindle it. There was a lot of trust in the air.

Betrayal is a theme that threads through many of your films, and it takes on different forms, the political or sexual.

Christian Petzold: I’m always interested in people who have their stories behind them, the shipwreck for example and the people who are on the surface of the ocean who are survivors. They try to make their way through the wreckage of the ship and they try to make a new ship. I like this kind of work, of people who have a destroyed love affair and how they can reconstruct that part of their lives, or people on the outside without money and they want to come back into society. This is the work for me. The work is not to invent something very new; the work is to do something with things you are surrounded by.

“Phoenix” conflates aspects of noir, melodrama, even the musical. I am struck by the science fiction quality to the material, this idea of the movie as a variant of the amnesia plot, except here in reverse, because it is the people around Nelly who either cannot or refuse to remember her past.

Christian Petzold: At first I didn’t want to make “Phoenix” because “Vertigo” exists. Harun said the same thing. It’s a fantastic movie but we hate it a little bit, too. We changed perspective to a female perspective. At the beginning she is bandaged and you think she is a victim, like all of the survivors’ victims. But at this moment, when she is in the basement, she starts to be the director of the movie and the director of the love affair. She was bringing back his memories. This is the turning point I like so much. As the director, when I look at the scene and see what she’s doing to him, I always think of her as an actress who doesn’t need [direction] anymore.

One thing that is very distinctive about you is you are very tall, almost six-feet. You have often used your height to shape the expressiveness of your characters. Was there a way with Nelly you wanted to go against that, to suggest how broken and damaged she was?

Nina Hoss: I thought very much about how I could express her journey in her body. When you see the pictures of the people who were at Auschwitz or the other concentration camps, they are so thin and in a way not really there. They look like they don’t want to be seen, so they don’t get into trouble. That’s what I was working on, the fear. I also wanted to show how [Nelly] grows slowly over time, like a flower. Her head goes up and she can remember what it is like to be in the body again. I wanted to embrace that and play with that and feel what it is.

This is your sixth film you have made together. How has the artistic relationship evolved in that time?

Christian Petzold: I said it once to her. I never could imagine she could play a mother with a child on her arms or an ordinary girl who’s going out on a Friday night. She’s a little bit of a stranger, or an exile. She’s a refugee born into another country and she wants to be part of our country or society. I always think of her as somebody out of this world and she has to stay here and she wants to be a part of it. Her self-confidence is great.

Nina Hoss: There’s a lot of respect for each other’s work, and a natural curiosity about what the other one would come up with. There’s a strong feeling and trust in the other’s judgment and ability and that makes it work. It’s not always easy. But you don’t lose interest, and as long as that doesn’t happen, you can tell stories together. Sometimes in between films we’ve had a three-year break and that’s been great.

I had done two movies before we met. My world was the theater. That’s what I knew the most about. The act of filmmaking was something he definitely introduced me to. There are not that many [filmmakers], for one, and still now, he is our strongest representative. Christian introduced me to [filmmaking] and helped me understand it’s a process and you have to find your own way. Now, it’s just great, and I have the feeling, like in “Phoenix,” that I deeply understood the characters and I understand them without us having to explain it to each other. Now that we all know what and how we want to tell stories, let’s push it a bit further. That is only possible among friends or by people who trust each other.

“Phoenix” is filled with references to other films, like “Vertigo,” “Eyes Without a Face” and certain Rainer Werner Fassbinder films. Did you watch any of them as part of your preparation?

Nina Hoss: Some of them I had seen, but years ago, so I had a vague remembrance, of moments and gestures. We watched “Out of the Past,” and also the [Jacques] Demy film, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”  These films don’t really have anything to do with our story, but Christian said it was a way of remembering or talking about political actions that are going on in your country at a particular time. I didn’t read the novel before we made the film. I did it afterwards. I need to have my own take on things and develop it myself. These characters, they come from a different time and they have another way about them.

You are one of the few major filmmakers still shooting in 35mm. In “Phoenix,” there’s an archival quality to the imagery, the color seems very muted and faded, part of this idea of an irretrievable past.

Christian Petzold: In the early ‘30s the Germans had made all of these great films, like “People on Sunday,” the Billy Wilder, [Edgar G.] Ulmer and [Robert] Siodmak film. These movies were full of life. All of these great Jewish directors had to leave Germany and they made film noir: “Lost Weekend,” “Detour,” “The Killers.” They changed their positive light into the dark light of the night. I said to the cinematographer [Hans Fromm] that we need color, because we have to have the natural and beautiful qualities of the world, but also the noir and the realistic. We have to use 35-millimeter. I like to shoot on 35-mm because I don’t have the [playback] monitor. There’s one camera and you can’t see the rushes until two days later. You have to trust the things of what you saw. What’s fantastic about 35-mm is that two days later, as the rushes are coming, you see them projected at a screening and it’s not your movie. It feels a little bit strange. It’s done. I like that very much. There’s a great respect for the material.

A two-part question: As an artist who spent the first half of your life in a divided country, what was the response to the film in Germany? In the quarter of a century since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has there been a national reckoning about the Third Reich, World War II and the Holocaust.

Christian Petzold: It was not as enthusiastic as it was to “Barbara.” I think “Phoenix” has its own neighborhood. “Barbara” is about living in a communistic part of Germany. We had movies about survivors, about people coming back from the war, one with Peter Lorre, but the movie was a little bit lonely. It was not a failure, but it was lonelier than “Barbara.”

In the West part of Germany, we had ’68, student rebellion and social protest and from this moment, we talked about guilt and Nazis, but not before. It actually started in ’63, but we call it ’68. In the German Democratic Republic, they are more nationalistic, but they never talk about guilt, because the guilt is on the West side.

Patrick Z. McGavin

Patrick Z. McGavin is a Chicago-based writer and critic. His film writing has appeared in the British magazine Empire, Stop Smiling, Time Out Chicago, Cineaste and LA Weekly. He also maintains the film blog,

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