In Spotlight, we shine a light on upcoming, underappreciated or obscure filmmakers by examining three pieces in their filmography. This week, we explore the films of German director Christian Petzold.
Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, Penelope Cruz and Pedro Almodóvar, Zhao Tao and Jia Zhangke – modern cinema is hardly bereft of great actress-director pairings, but few have impressed more in recent years than Nina Hoss and Christian Petzold. Beginning their collaboration with the 2002 TV film Something to Remind Me, the pair has since worked together in six feature films with their latest, Phoenix, released in the UK last year to high critical acclaim.
In 2008’s Jerichow, Petzold takes James M. Cain’s classic novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and reimagines the story in a small German town setting. Benno Fürmann plays Thomas, a dishonoured soldier who returns home from duty and finds employment as a delivery van driver for Ali (Hilmi Sözer), an alcoholic Turkish snack store owner. After a few brief wordless encounters with Ali’s wife Laura (Nina Hoss), Thomas eventually gives into his sexual impulses and they begin a steamy, illicit affair. Previous screen incarnations of Cain’s novel has emphasised the histrionics of the story, but Petzold intelligently diffuses the melodrama to create a slow-burning but suspenseful chamber piece.
Petzold gained greater critical attention after the release Barbara in 2012; winning the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival in the process. The titular Barbara (Hoss) is a 1980’s East German doctor who, after failing in her application to leave for the West, is forced to leave her prestigious position in Berlin and sent to another hospital in the suburbs in which she’s monitored by the Stasi. As the story progresses, Barbara attempts to plan her escape but the question of who she can trust and who’s a stooge looms over her. Bolstered by strong performances, this compelling thriller depicts Germany during a difficult period, examining the political unease and paranoia of the time.
Phoenix, Petzold’s most recent work, is a war-time tale of deception that focuses on the disfigured Nelly (Hoss), a concentration camp survivor, who is caught up in a peculiar identity-theft scheme in which she must pretend to impersonate herself. Though viewers may have to take the narrative with a pinch of salt to overlook some of the plot contrivances, Phoenix is a thoroughly engaging, intelligent psychological thriller that doesn’t rely on cheap twists or camera tricks to create suspense. Hoss gives an incredibly captivating performance as a woman haunted by the ghost of her former self, and it all culminates in a beautiful and powerfully devastating ending. You can read our full review here.
In his relatively short career so far, the German director has shown himself to be a master craftsman of suspense, drawing comparisons with Hitchcock in creating palpable tension without the need for overblown action or heavy violence (most of his films comes with a 12 rating). If Petzold continues his remarkable streak then it’d seem only a matter of time before Hollywood comes calling, but as long as he keeps making them with the enchanting Hoss, I’d look forward to whatever comes next.