An interview with PHOENIX star, Nina Hoss.
Sitting across from Nina Hoss less than twenty-four-hours after attending the world premiere of her latest film PHOENIX, I am almost at a loss for words. Just the night before the actress moved me to tears with her brilliant performance as Holocaust survivor Nelly. After being released from an unnamed concentration camp, Nelly’s face is severely burned and disfigured. Before a facial reconstruction surgery, she is told that she may choose to look like anyone she likes. Against her doctor’s recommendation, Nelly asks to be made to look like herself. Months later, after her recovery, Nelly ventures into post-war Berlin in search of her husband Johnny, who may or may not have betrayed her to the Nazis.
PHOENIX marks Hoss’ seventh film with director Christian Petzold. The relationship has been constant for the past decade, making it clear that there is a reason why Hoss keeps returning. She tells me, “I’m always really interested in what he has to tell. Of course the aesthetics are something I’m interested in as well.” She pauses, before continuing, “Another reason why I always come back is because we develop together, going further each time. I think PHOENIX is pretty different from YELLA or WOLFSBURG, so I don’t have the feeling that we repeat ourselves. As long as that is happening than we can continue to work together.”
Petzold has not made a film without Hoss since 2005; at this point she is a staple in his work. The same cannot be said of Petzold for Hoss though. She remarked, without me even asking, “I can’t only act in Christian’s movies, so I try and balance it out. I’m very happy to sometimes have a counter weight, whether it be working in the theatre or working with others.”
Many films have been made about the Holocaust, but few features discuss what happened to the Holocaust survivors. PHOENIX shows that there is just as much of a story to living after the Holocaust as living during it. Explaining her means of preparation for the role, Hoss said, “I read a lot. One book I really loved was Liana Millu’s Smoke Over Birkenau. There are not so many books [about the Holocaust] written out of a female perspective and of course that was what I was looking for. The way [Millu’s] character describes what she experiences in the camp really helped me to get an experiential background for Nelly and what she possibly might have seen.” Hoss also dedicated nearly ten hours to watching Claude Lanzmann’s monumental documentary SHOAH. “It is the most amazing documentation of this horrific scenario and its aftermath. What helped me a lot was to watch people talking about what they experienced, even though it was thirty to forty years after it happened.”
In our conversation, Hoss brought up one of PHOENIX’s most thought provoking lines of dialogue. When talking to her close friend Lene, Nelly says, “But I am not a Jew.” Hoss thought the line not only important in describing Nelly’s feelings about the war, but also those of many other survivors. She explained, “You get purely defined by that. That is what that means, that even if you don’t think it’s part of your identity, that’s all that is left of your identity. That is what they tell you. It was the same if you were a homosexual, or a communist. That’s all that you are. This is what the horror is that you can’t understand.”
I was a little hesitiant about my final question (which is why I left it until the end) but I felt compelled to ask Hoss was it was like to be a non-Jewish German woman playing a Jewish Holocaust survivor. Hoss answered, keenly, “As a German, when you talk about [the Holocaust] you have a very big responsibility of telling it in the right way and being very careful with how you tell it because it happened in our country. We want to make everyone aware that it happened in our country. The Germans have to tell the stories again and again and again because it happened here. Every time there is any anti-Semitism in Germany there is a huge outcry, because we need to make sure that it is never going to happen again, that it is impossible.”
The perfection in Hoss’ performance in PHOENIX needs to be seen to be believed. Hoss has played many hardened characters throughout her career, but in person the actress was warm and delightful. It is a rare occurrence that an actress is just as endearing to watch as she is to speak to, once again cementing Hoss as one of the best.
PHOENIX is now playing in select theatres, including TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. For more information and for tickets, visit tiff.ca.