I spent so long trying to untangle the allegorical and psychological underpinning of Christian Petzold’s post-Holocaust drama, Phoenix, that it took me a while to recognise how profoundly unmoved it left me.
It’s not that I couldn’t embrace its implausible premise – where a concentration camp survivor (Nina Hoss) returns to her husband (Ronald Zehrfeld) with a new face, while he trains her to pretend to be his wife and claim a fortune, unaware of her true identity. Nor were my problems anything to do with the cinematography, which combined saturated period photography with a hint of Hitchcock (unsurprising, given the Vertigo resonances) and a quaver of emotionality.
Rather I simply found Petzold’s approach – the affectless acting, the stilted pacing, the pointed ambiguity – kept me emotionally unmoored from what could’ve been an affecting melodrama. There’s a lot to respect about the film and, perhaps, an intellectual subtext I’m missing (the survivor as a synecdoche for the Jewish people? For Israel?) that would elevate the film beyond my assessment of it as handsome yet underwhelming. This is a story that wants to be felt, that wants to drag you into its misery, its redemption, its deep uncertainty. I just wasn’t feeling it.