A startlingly intelligent, incandescent thriller topped off by one of the great endings in recent cinema, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix has been granted early canonization by the Criterion Collection, which releases the film in a deluxe Blu-ray edition featuring interviews with the director and his star Nina Hoss. Phoenix is Petzold and Hoss’ sixth collaboration, and while the German actress received her share of official plaudits—including a Best Actress prize from the Toronto Film Critics Association—it’s difficult to overstate the impact of her performance. As Nelly Lenz, a disfigured concentration camp survivor who re-encounters her husband in the wreckage of post-World War II Berlin (and is not recognized by him) she’s a figure of mystery, tragedy, and strength; the script’s clever riffs on classics like Eyes Without A Face and Vertigo are secondary to the power of the star’s characterization.
The A.V. Club: Phoenix first came out late in 2014. Is it strange to return to it in an interview now?
Nina Hoss: Maybe I can look at it more analytically now, and more objectively. But I haven’t seen it in a while. It would be very interesting to watch it again after two years.
AVC: There is a lot in the movie to take apart. When you were making it, did you think about all of the political or symbolic complexities of the script, or is that secondary to finding a way inside the character?
NH: I tend to surround myself with whatever material I can get a hold of, especially if it’s a historical movie. So I did read Primo Levi, and watched the movie by Claude Lanzmann, Shoah, which was the thing that really helped me the most. You see these people talking about their experiences, and they have this urge to tell their stories, because finally somebody has asked them. They feel this need to tell the world what happened and what humanity is capable of, and for the first minute, you think they’re over it, that they can look at it and talk about it, and then there’s always this moment where the voice cracks, or they get so quiet that you can’t hear them, or you see them fighting away the tears. And I thought, “This is the moment that Nelly is in.” There is a combination of trying to analytically understand what trauma is, and also working through it to get to a very emotional place.
AVC: In a way, though, Nelly is the reverse of the people you describe. She gets stronger as the movie goes along.
NH: I think that’s what happens when you go through trauma and get some understanding of where you’re at. You come to a place where you find strength, hopefully. That’s what people did, they jumped right back into life. Or they didn’t want to talk about it, because they couldn’t make sense of it. They wanted to have families and build lives as if nothing happened. But people couldn’t forget about it, and it caught up to them as well. That will happen to Nelly too, but much, much later. I had to forget about what we know, and everything from our perspective. I had to simplify it for myself, without history books in hand. I had to think about a person who’s been through such a trauma, and how she looks for the light again. For me at the beginning, she is just zombie-like, or baby-like. She’s trying to make sense of the world again.
AVC: You mention zombies, and the film’s title is a metaphor of re-birth. What’s strange is that she’s being “re-born” into her own life, and seeing herself through her husband’s eyes, which is unsettling.
NH: It’s something superficial. All he tells her is how his wife used to dress, how she used to walk. “Walk seductively.” It’s a very male view of women. It’s something she’s unaware of in the moment. That was hard, but I had to go with it, to float with Nelly without judging anything. She doesn’t have the strength to judge anything. All she wants is to get her life back. “I was able to laugh once,” she thinks. “I never thought about politics.” She doesn’t want to be what they made her be. There are so many rich things in this movie! So much to think about.
AVC: In an interview I did with Petzold for Cinema Scope, he said that there was a different opening scene with a larger scale to it—images of dead bodies in the aftermath of the camps. And then he said he cut it out immediately.
NH: Adorno said you can’t ever show pictures of Auschwitz, or the victims, and you can’t re-create the concentration camps, like Schindler’s List. Especially not as a German. This is in our heads. It’s fake, but this is so much bigger than fake. It’s morally untouchable. You have to find an artistic way of showing it, without re-making it. I thought maybe we should—maybe it’s good to do it. At the end of the day, it wasn’t needed. It’s not missing.
AVC: You mentioned having distance from the movie earlier. Are you the sort of person who is interested in the analysis you get on a DVD release of a movie, like the one Criterion is doing for Phoenix? Do you watch special features or commentaries?
NH: I look at it from a professional point of view. I’m really interested in how other filmmakers think and how other actors approach their work, even if you won’t always hear the whole truth in an interview. You get some idea of how they approached their material. When I started off as a student, I was always watching these sorts of things. It’s especially interesting when you make up your mind about a movie, and then you hear about the director’s actual intention, and it can make it richer.
AVC: Do you think there’s something to be said for not knowing an artist’s intention?
NH: That’s also true. Sometimes, I hate when authors talk about their book. Because it’s my book. I don’t want to know what they think. Then again, that’s why I said “from a professional point of view.” You need to see different techniques and approaches.
AVC: At this point, after so many movies together, do you think you can talk analytically about Christian Petzold’s cinema?
NH: I always know the frame I’m in. That’s why I work with Christian, and why I’m interested in the stories he writes or the movies he makes. I know we’re talking about personal life, but it’s always a reflection on the country we live in, and on society, and pressures in society on individuals. That’s something I’m interested in, anyway. I feel carried by knowing this movie tackles that.
AVC: It’s interesting that he’s moving backward, from earlier films in the present, to period pieces like Barbara and Phoenix, which increasingly approach this primal scene in German history of World War II and the Holocaust.
NH: Christian needed to deal with today to understand where we’re at, and to think about where it came from. To talk about today you have to know about the past, and you have to deal with the past to understand today. And that’s why he knew how to write a script like Phoenix, with Harun Farocki.
AVC: Harun Farocki had a major influence on Petzold’s work beyond co-writing screenplays with him. Can you talk about that collaboration?
NH: I only ever met Harun when he made a set visit. It was very much Christian and him. I got to learn what Harun’s input was after Christian had met with Harun. The three of us were never really together. What Christian told me was that Harun had such knowledge of politics and history and how to show these things—the didacticism, the ability to look at two sides, to make it simple and complicated as well. Both of them started with very complex ideas and then stripped them down. They understood what is necessary, and what is just the cover. His film language is in Christian’s work as well. To me, when I see Harun’s films, he never gives an answer, which Christian doesn’t do either. They raise questions.
AVC: Absolutely, although Petzold is much more of a narrative filmmaker. One of the great things about Phoenix is that it has this ambiguity while being dramatically satisfying. What’s left to say after that ending? Have you sung “Speak Low” since shooting the film?
NH: No. The fantastic thing about working with Christian is we shoot chronologically, mainly. He gives us the chance to have the experience along with the character, and develop it that way. I had the urge, for me and for Nelly, to find some strength. Standing there, giving it her all, giving it back to these people and then leaving them. I left the song there. I can never sing it again, because it was so much Nelly. I think I sang it twice only. She’s finding her voice, she can only talk, and then to sing she has to be free and to be brave, or the sound won’t leave her throat. Those two minutes show her whole way through that movie. When we rehearsed it, I was never in character. That’s Christian, making sure I don’t do it 15 times, and lose the specialness of the moment. As an actress, I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, just like Nelly.