Part of the FOKUS: Films from Germany Festival

Christian Petzold’s Phoenix uses the comedic Shakespearean plot device of a husband who does not recognise his own wife, and turns it on its head to tragic emotional effect. After facial reconstructive surgery following a concentration-camp shooting, Nelly seeks out husband Johnny, now living in a dingy one-room lodging and employed in menial work at a music club. Failing to recognise her, Johnny asks if she will stand in for his dead wife in order to help him claim her considerable estate.

Actors Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld (working together for the second time under director Petzold) then play out various scenarios in which husband instructs wife in how to act like herself. Moments of heartbreak come thick and fast: Nelly does her makeup wrong, walks wrong, looks wrong. Whenever it seems as though Johnny is about to catch on, he doesn’t, and instead frequently frets that the plan will fail because Nelly is so unlike his wife.

What synopses omit from their description of Petzold’s critically acclaimed post-war piece is its preoccupation with music. Phoenix could easily exist without its curious and enchanting uses of music: a striking, minimalist score opens the film and continues throughout; the main characters are musicians; most of the bleak German sets contain pianos or other instruments; an intimate performance by Hoss and Zehrfeld acts as the film’s tragic, open-ended crescendo.

While Nelly suffers from a deep discomfort with her own altered appearance (visually paralleled by the bombed buildings and debris-littered streets) and despises mirrors, she finds respite in music. These opposing elements of her life come together when she asks a blind street musician for any leads on her husband. This is, tellingly, the most confident version of Hoss’s Nelly in the entire film – unseen, and under the spell of music.

Thanks to restrained performances and careful pacing, not a second of Phoenix could be called overdone, overplayed, overacted. After an hour of the quiet, muted affair that is Petzold’s treatment of this simple story (based loosely on the 1961 Hubert Manteilhet novel Le Retour de Cendres), the audience are heartbroken putty in his cruel, deft director’s hands. Whether you read into the film’s deeper international subtext, with Nelly representing a broken, self-reflective Germany itself, is by-the-by when the drama at hand is this well played.