phoenix posterA mystery movie doesn’t always need to have its mysteries hidden away, obliging itself to constantly stringing along the audience with questions and twists. There are other ways to create thrills, and German director/writer Christian Petzold (Film review: ‘Barbara’ – transcending suspicion with grace) has devised an unequivocal experience with Phoenix. Working with regular co-screenwriter Harun Farocki, Petzold has adapted Hubert Monteilhet’s 1961 novel Le Retour des cendres (Return from the Ashes), which already had a bit of a convoluted film adaptation in 1965 by J. Lee Thompson starring Maximilian Schell. Hence, the possible title change.

There is some elegance in Monteilhet’s original title, which offers a more deliberate reference to where the film’s main character comes from, as a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. However, Petzold and Farocki have streamlined the story quite a bit, dropping characters, and focusing profoundly on the notion of love and the past, and the two characters at the center of the film, the Jewish singer Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss, Petzold’s go-to lead actress) who finds several levels of freedom following liberation by the allied forces, and Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), her gentile husband, a pianist who performed with her, until the Nazis separated them. He thinks she, as is the case with her entire family, is dead.


Nelly first appears onscreen with her face wrapped in bandages. She is driven into Berlin by the only friend she has left, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), where a surgeon will help repair her face, a process he clarifies is “not reconstruction” but “recreation.” Though Lene promises Nelly that they will find their true sanctuary in Palestine, Nelly remains obsessed with finding her husband in the ruins of Berlin. Though Lene tells Nelly that Johnny betrayed her to the Nazis, Nelly goes out at night secretly searching. Nelly comes across Johnny working in the maybe too aptly named Phoenix lounge. She takes advantage of her new face to feel him out and introduces herself as Esther. So begins a deception that explores moral character in the wake of an atrocious past.

Lene is desperate to find love again, but the question always lingers whether Johnny loved her to begin with, and if so, what was that loved based on? The answer might seem simple when Johnny notes enough of a similarity in “Esther” to his wife Phoenixthat he comes up with a scheme to use her. He suggests that she might be able to impersonate Nelly, so he might get his hands on her inheritance. But Phoenix is a much more complicated film than that. Petzold instead has created a film that feels like an inversion of the film noir. The femme fatale is duplicitous, yes, but she loves someone, or an idea of someone, and that someone is a man she is both scamming and scamming for.

The conflict and irony of her actions is what make Phoenix‘s drama so compelling. It’s in the small moments when Nelly lets out a smile behind Johnny’s back, as he gives her a ride on a bike to their old hiding place. There’s a practicality in his relationship with “Esther” that fills a void for Nelly who wants to be herself in the past, but cannot seem to face her new reality even with a new face. The lack of existence is revealed an intensity that lies in the smallest gestures.


Not only is Petzold working again with his co-writer and Hoss, who again brings a soft-spoke grace to a complicated female character, but also with cinematographer Hans Fromm. Fromm has always had a knack for brightening the dark moods of Petzold’s films, and he does it again in Phoenix. Film noir comparisons would be incomplete without recognizing how this movie plays with shadow and light. From the harsh red neon glow of club Phoenix, the site of Nelly’s rebirth, to her struggles of devotion enhanced by the subtle contrast of shadow and light in the home Nelly and Lene are taken in as lodgers, there is hardly any incidental lighting. There’s also a different kind of light and darkness in the set pieces. There are deep shadows in the ruinous devastation of Berlin that speak to the past of the city as well as that of Nelly and the natural, green bucolic beauty in the still very intact, lakeside mansion where Lene once hid from the Nazis.

An intelligent film with style to spare, Phoenix is driven by a strange mystery, in that it invites the audience to contemplate deception from another angle. Driven by a dramatic irony that lets the audience in on everything, Phoenix becomes something else entirely, much like the main character who finds empowerment in her wounds.

Hans Morgenstern

Screening update: By popular demand the following have for Sept. 4:

Aventura Mall 24 Theatres – Aventura
Indian River 24 – Vero Beach
Silverspot at Coconut Creek – Coconut Creek
Last Picture Show 5 – Tamarac

Phoenix runs 98 minutes, is in English and German with English subtitles and is rated PG-13 (it has its disturbing moments). It opens in our South Florida area on the following schedule:


  • MDC’s Tower Theater in Miami
  • Miami Beach Cinematheque
  • Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale


  • Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables
  • Movies of Lake Worth
  • Movies of Delray 5
  • Living Room Cinema 4 in Boca Raton


  • Silversport Cinema in Naples
  • Prado Stadium 12 in Bonita Springs


  • Lake Worth Playhouse

It first premiered in Miami at the Miami International Film Festival. IFC Films shared a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of Christian Schulz for IFC Films.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Barbara (2012) Movie PosterCold War Germany has inspired many a depressing movie about humanity’s struggle in the face of oppression. The much-acclaimed Barbara offers something refreshingly different without dumbing-down the stark atmosphere that stays true to the dark era of the 20th century. It has deservedly won over those in the film’s native country, garnering top awards (see its recognition on IMDB).

Will it make the translation in the US? As the film seemed to have missed recognition during awards season stateside, I cannot say that it will, but it should. Cinephiles who should most not miss this film are those who appreciate the compact, concentrated moral tales by the Dardenne brothers (see: ‘The Kid With a Bike’ harnesses potency of simple filmmaking). Using the backdrop of Cold War era East Germany in the year 1980, director Christian Petzold presents a film designed to reveal something much grander than a single person’s struggle for freedom, but a story of sacrifice and grace under oppression.

The film’s titular protagonist (Nina Hoss, who won a Silver Bear for her performance) is a doctor banished from Berlin to the hinterlands after she committed some crime under the communist regime. Barbara_04_HFThe drama glazes over her wrongdoing (applying for an exit visa), which befits the film. As we know from history, many of the laws in East Germany were morally suspect and infringed on human rights. Applying for a visa no longer constitutes a criminal act in the eyes of today’s democratic Germany. But it is testament to the film’s strength that, with a few compact scenes, Barbara is established as a morally suspect person who must in the end win the audience over, despite her seemingly trivial moral divergence— a bold move in confident storytelling by Petzold, who co-wrote the script with Harun Farocki.

The first day at work for Barbara is all about establishing her as an outsider. Her enigmatic quality, as she maintains a distance from her landlady and co-workers, serves the film well. When she first appears on screen, the camera maintains an appropriate distance, as citizens in this era and place treated one another with suspicion, above all else. Barbara_05_HFThe first shot of her in the film is a high angle through the leaves of treetops. The gaze looks out as if from a window a couple of stories above ground, as two unseen men chatter about her behavior and make assumptions about her personality. We later learn the voyeurs are the man who will be her boss, André (Ronald Zehrfeld) and a fellow named Klaus Schütz (Rainer Bock), a member of the Stasi, police who spied on citizens waiting for them only to slip up, so they might be thrown back in jail.

Though the camera placement of this opening scene will never return in the film, the distant gaze haunts much of the film’s action. Barbara constantly looks over her shoulder while sneaking around to meet a lover who visits her from free West Germany bearing gifts and cash. Meanwhile, Klaus shadows her and pops up more than once sitting in a chair in her own apartment. As a colleague rummages through every nook of the modest dwelling, Klaus only studies Barbara, eyes fixated on catching behavior that might betray her. If that does not seem invasive enough, he does not leave until a female colleague shows up to strip search Barbara.

The stark situation, removed from the usually gray city of Berlin to the bucolic countryside, is punctuated by scenes like the one depicted above. The film maintains the mood without melodramatic angles or music but via consistent images. BARBARA  Regie Christian PetzoldThe desolate road Barbara travels by bicycle on her way to work always appears windswept. Never does a rainy day occur to change the mood. It’s all in the darkness of the situation. A moment given to strangers who turn to stare at Barbara is enough to establish the mood of oppression of East Germany, during this era.

Like Hoss, cinematographer Hans Fromm has been a consistent collaborator with the director. The three of them have made four other films together, and Barbara reveals a clear harmony in their craft that only experience can bring. Fromm maintains a steady, static camera throughout the film. Though there are no attention-grabbing pans, tracking shots or zooms, the images are loaded with irony, depth and color, which might seem an ironic cocktail of visual tones. Though often color-saturated, settings are always simple, yet loaded with information that push the story forward and maintain mood. The film’s mise-en-scène reveals the hospital as ill-equipped to handle some cases, but it also reveals the simplicity of life in the country disrupted by the government’s complicated, heavy-handed need to keep people in line. Barbara_02_HF 2The colors are so dynamic and brilliant they not only make up for the film’s static camera but also the fact that the director chooses to use only diegetic music for mood enhancement within the scenes. The film almost feels like a Technicolor experience, standing in dramatic irony against a gloomy way of living.

As Barbara creeps around to meet her lover, her supervising doctor always exudes an amiable distant charm and has to work against a natural suspicion to gain her trust. They ultimately bond while taking extra steps to care for separate patients. Trust in these oppressed people is established outside their relationship. Before that, a conversation over a Rembrandt print, (The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp) whose brilliant colors meld into the world of Barbara prophetically, finally begins to thaw the ice between the two of them.

In the end, morality will trump a self-serving need for freedom for our hero who will have to make a crucial decision during the film’s climax, which is handled with as much low-key grace as can be expected by the filmmakers. That may read as rather heavy-handed, but the power of the film to go against melodrama and sentimentality for such a profound statement, reveals the talent of Petzold. Beyond the Cold War era period, this poetic, modest film ultimately reveals that trust is found outside relationships, and we are all more than the sum of the other’s perceptions, a human lesson beyond era and language we should all learn from.

Hans Morgenstern

Barbara is Rated PG-13, runs 105 min. and is in German with English subtitles in the US. It opens in my area, South Florida, this Friday, Feb. 8, at many indie theaters. Here they are (the Miami Beach Cinematheque held a preview screening for the purposes of this review):

Miami Beach Cinematheque – Miami Beach, FL
Cosford Cinema – Coral Gables, FL
Living Room Cinema 4 – Boca Raton, FL

Feb. 15:
Cinema Paradiso – Fort Lauderdale, FL

If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned throughout the year. A full schedule can be found on the film’s official website, here.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)