Hoss is the Bauss

(Germany, 98 min.)
Written and directed by Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf
Nina Hoss in Phoenix. Photo: Films We Like

Nina Hoss is the bauss. The ever-enigmatic German actress gives a powerhouse performance as Nelly, the fiercely seductive survivor of Christian Petzold’s post-war drama Phoenix. Hoss reunites with her Barbara director in this mysterious and ambiguous neo-noir, and the role is tailor made for her beguiling screen presence. Marlene Dietrich couldn’t have played it better.

Hoss plays Nelly, a survivor of Auschwitz who first appears at a checkpoint in a car driven by Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), her friend from the pre-war days. As the car stops at the checkpoint and Lene negotiates with the soldiers in English while Nelly sits silently in the passenger seat with her face covered in bandages, Phoenix introduces a woman who narrowly escaped death, but was born again. Nelly, her face badly injured due to a gunshot wound, does her best to reconstruct herself and her life to the best possible likeness of her pre-war self.

Petzold creates a thrillingly ambiguous war zone in which few certainties reside amidst the shadows and striking colours of post-war turmoil. (The cinematography by Hans Fromm and the production design by K.D. Gruber are note perfect.) The film re-creates Nelly for the viewer, yet it’s impossible for Nelly to shake her air of mystery even after she undergoes surgery. Hoss, looking bruised and battered while Nelly recovers, slinks around the shadows of Berlin beneath a black veil to mask her appearance under yet another layer of darkness. Nelly rises from the ashes of the Holocaust with obvious fire: she’s carried a torch for her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, Hoss’s Barbara co-star), and is determined to be re-united and reclaim her old life.

Johnny, however, may have double-crossed her. Lene, a weary and cautious witness, informs Nelly that rumours abound that Johnny himself gave up his wife to the Nazis and now wants to claim her family’s inheritance since she’s presumed dead. Nelly returns to Johnny nevertheless and finds him cleaning tables at a cabaret called The Phoenix: an aptly named dive that flourishes with vibrant red lighting amidst the bombed-out remains of Berlin. Johnny, however, fails to recognize his own wife. Instead, he sees a perfectly viable likeness that he can use to claim Nelly’s money with the right charade. Nelly, eager to reconnect with her husband, agrees to go along with the play.

She moonlights as Esther in a fascinating performance-within-a-performance as Nelly rebuilds herself with the few remaining fragments of her own life while trying to convince her husband that she’s a lot like the woman he wants her to be. The film makes a strong thematic play between the Nelly and the image of a Hitchcockian femme fatale in contrast to the titular phoenix she embodies. She’s a shrewd and calculating seductress, but, unlike a scheming villainess of film noir, she’s motivated by goodness, not guile.

How Johnny fails to recognize the woman before him is a baffling mystery. Phoenix offers no tangible glimpse of Nelly’s appearance before her surgery—the few photographs she reviews don’t show her face—and Petzold only gives the viewer a bit of faith in Nelly’s demeanour to believe that she looks something like herself, enough like herself, to convince her husband that she survived the camps. Therein sits the masterful irony behind Johnny’s failure to recognize his wife. Berliners like he were agents of willful blindness who shielded their eyes to the true horrors of the Holocaust so that they could survive by their own moral codes. Turn a blind eye to what actually happens and one can make the choices that Johnny may have done to get by.

His own instructions to Esther on how to pass as a camp survivor show his ongoing ignorance after the war. Despite Esther’s protests, he thinks the most convincing play is to have Nelly return from the camps in a vibrant red dress and her favourite Parisian shoes as if she were simply on a holiday or an all-inclusive vacation at Auschwitz. Alternatively, some friends and peers recognize Nelly immediately when she revisits old haunts. They, however, look at her with guilt and averted eyes when they greet her—some tacit apology for their complicity during the war.

Hoss inflects Esther’s performance as Nelly; or, rather, Nelly’s performance as Ester, with subtle survivalist traits that reveal what one had to do to survive. She embodies a cunning chameleon, and a performer who knows that the slightest hint, glance, or error separates life from death. Hoss’s masterful performance layers the complexity of her survivor: she’s anything but damaged by the fire she endured.

Phoenix rises as an accomplished character study in its mesmerizing finale that sees Nelly join Johnny in a performance to convince their friends that she’s the real deal. Nelly, a singer to Johnny’s pianist in the pre-war days, strikes up a smoky rendition of Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s “Speak Low” while Johnny accompanies her on the keys. She’s slow and hesitant when the song begins, and Johnny watches her uncertainly, worried that she might not pull it off. The song rises and Nelly finds her voice as Hoss owns the moment and turns the power of their relationship with a staggering change of key. Loyalties are drawn with betrayal in this affective melody that gives Nelly the final note on her journey. Petzold, Hoss, and Zehrfeld play the scene masterfully and understatedly. Like Phoenix itself, the climax is ambiguous yet resonant, unsettlingly haunting, and a powerhouse showcase for Nina Hoss.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Phoenix screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until Thursday, June 18.
It returns August 13.