The release of Phoenix (Germany 2014)

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(We first reported on Phoenix at the London Film Festival, where it was our ‘best of show’. Keith now offers a view on the UK release of the film on May 8th.)

This was a preview screening for Members and Guardian readers at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum. There were about sixty people in the audience: most of whom seemed very appreciative. I would have expected more, even on a Sunday morning, as the director Christian Petzold and the star Nina Hoss have already collaborated very successfully in Yella (2007) and Barbara (2012).

The film is set in Berlin immediately following the end of World War II. Berlin is still an occupied city and the survivors, ordinary Germans and ex-camp inmates, return to find their old life or try to find a new life. A woman confronting a new situation or a new life was the central theme of both of Petzold’s earlier films and it is once again here. Nelly (Nina Hoss) is still recovering from trauma and from injury, assisted by Lena (Nina Kunzendorf) who is involved in assisting Jewish victims and who is involved the Zionist movement: she also is probably in love with Nelly. On the road to recovery Nelly seeks out her friends and family from the past, including Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld).

The film vividly recreates the Berlin of the period and also takes in the wartime and the pre-war world. This still haunts the protagonists. Nelly was a singer before the war and the film makes good use of the songs of Kurt Weill. The film’s title is taken from the name of a night-club that figures in the story.

Petzold’s film combine genre plots with art film sensibilities. So at one level the film works rather like a thriller, with the audience likely trying to foresee the developing permutations. But at a more subtle level it works as a study of character, ably presented by the fine performances of the lead actors, especially Hoss and Zehrfeld. And Petzold and his production team bring their usual excellent and finely judged mise en scène, camerawork, editing and sound to the film: this time in 2.39:1.

But Petzold’s films also work at a deeper metaphorical level, casting a critical eye on German societies and culture. Yella was set in the post-reunification Germany with some acid representations of that market economy. Barbara took the audience back to the divided German and the DDR, a noirish narrative that suited the depiction of that closed society. Now we have the world of the immediate post-war Germany, with the associated guilt, traumas and resentments of the characters. I wonder if Petzold, with Hoss, already has a plan for a film set during the Third Reich or even the earlier Weimar Republic. Like his other films this work also references the earlier cinemas of Germany.

The film has a general release from 8th May. It is definitely worth seeking out and most enterprising Independent cinemas will presumably screen it. Stay right to the end, the climax and resolution of this film is the most compelling I have yet seen in 2015.

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