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German director Christian Petzold, pictured, and his muse Nina Hoss have collaborated for nearly 15 years, with Hoss starring in most of Petzold’s features, including Yella, Wolfsburg, Jerichow (a take on James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice) and most recently Barbara.

Vincent West/Reuters

Gene Kelly swirling jazz hands and skipping through the sunny streets of The Young Girls of Rochefort seems an unlikely starting point for a restrained German film about trauma, betrayal and identity in post-Second World War Berlin. But Jacques Demy's buoyant, candy-coloured musical is what sets the underlying agenda, if not the tone, for Phoenix, Christian Petzold's latest film.

The acclaimed German director and his muse Nina Hoss (A Most Wanted Man) were in Toronto last September for its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and sat down separately to discuss the movie and the nature of their long working relationship. For nearly 15 years, Hoss has starred in most of Petzold's features, including Yella, Wolfsburg, Jerichow (a take on James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice) and most recently Barbara.

Petzold explains that all his films begin with a cold reading of the script with the actors and his informal cinematic repertory company – cinematographer Hans Fromm, production designer K.D. Gruber, actor Ronald Zehrfeld and Hoss – then, before rehearsals, the next thing they do is spend three days watching movies, in this case starting with Demy's musical. The actors were admittedly bemused at what it had to do with Phoenix, a story inspired in part by An Experiment in Love, Alexander Kluge's tale set in a concentration camp (about scientific experiments on once-passionate lovers).

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"Demy is Jewish, and there was the war in Algiers – you can feel it – but the people can dance, they can talk about love, they can speak fantastic sentences," Petzold says. "I told them it is because it is a movie that can't be made in Germany after 1945." Not even now? "No. Not yet. There was a total physical and psychological destruction. So we thought a lot about that."

The screenplay takes Hubert Monteilhet's crime thriller Le retour des cendres as its actual starting point – it is about Auschwitz survivor Nelly, a singer who returns to Berlin after the war; because of physical wounds, she has had facial reconstruction and assumes a new identity in order to find out if her musician husband Johnny might have been the one who betrayed her. Johnny does not seem to recognize his wife, whom he presumes dead, but notices a resemblance and hatches an impersonation scheme in order to claim her inheritance.

To practise their ruse and learn how to convincingly behave like the carefree, prewar Nelly everyone remembers, the fragile, tense survivor moves into Johnny's cramped basement apartment. "Phoenix is like a musical," Petzold also recalls explaining. "What is happening in this basement is a dance choreography. But it's a destroyed one. Nelly wants to go back to a time – 1932, '31 – where it's possible to dance, where it's possible to have love struggles, to make [Ernst] Lubitsch movies. She wants to go back – she's fighting for that, dancing for that. The lover, Johnny, he can't dance any more."

The experience of developing the performance of Nelly's layers of identity was like chamber theatre, Hoss says. "It is very intense – more like a pressure chamber!"

With Petzold, there are no storyboards or shot lists. "We start working at 10 o'clock – because I don't think you should film a woman before noon [he laughs], and we rehearse two or three hours and then start shooting around 12 or one."

There is no mark to hit or to say the line, Hoss adds. "When we are comfortable and happy with where we're at, and our bodies feel okay with everything, that's when the camera finds a place to film it, and the better you know each other, the further you can go," she continues. "In different directions, more frank or more daring."

Petzold says his dream to build up a stock company was inspired by [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder's regular ensemble. "And when I met Nina in 2001 I knew I had found the Actress. I can give her a suitcase of material and she comes back and I can't recognize my material any more!

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"I have both created something and it's like Frankenstein's bride – when he builds a woman and she awakes and looks at him and wants something else," the director adds appreciatively. "She has a will of her own. For me, it's fantastic, the dense struggle. It is a lucky situation. Everybody is criticizing me in Germany about having the same actors and I say, this is our program! We are working on a subject," he says.

Prior to the June, 1945-set Phoenix, Barbara took place in the East Germany of the early 1980s, and with every new film, Petzold inches backwards chronologically to engage directly in the events of the subject that has been the shadow explored in his work, toward zero – the war.

"It is deliberate, not accidental," Petzold says. After taking a break in the present for a side project, he will be in Vichy Marseilles, 1940, as he adapts Anna Seghers's novel of exile, boredom and identity, Transit.

"Maybe some day we can listen to German songs again," is a wish of one of the characters early in the film. While Phoenix may be more film noir than Hollywood musical, one crucial scene is sung rather than spoken. In this instance – no spoilers – it suggests that characters should be careful what they wish for.

The German song Petzold initially wanted to use was Wenn ich mir was wünschen dürfte, a staple of Marlene Dietrich's cabaret act, until he learned that it was memorably performed by Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter, which he'd never seen, so he instead chose Speak Low, German emigré Kurt Weill's 1943 jazz standard.

"That is the whole sadness about the song – that here is someone who worked in the German language with Bertolt Brecht in [Weimar Germany's] fantastic, creative time and now he's in Los Angeles," he says. He remembered this moment in Germany when they had five minutes of a fantastic life. "So the exile in the music was perfect."

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Hoss adds that they only later realized how the plot of the Broadway musical for which Weill wrote the tune (with lyrics by Ogden Nash) is "kind of the same story: a woman who gets humanized – a statue – with putting a ring on her finger. It was a great accident that it fit so well."

At the premiere, as Nelly sings the ballad, the film festival audience – to Hoss's shock – laughed. "I was pretty shaken by it," she admitted in our interview the next day, "because I didn't expect it, at all. And I had to think about it, what it meant, because it happened again at the screening this morning. It was close to clapping.

"They were very happy at what happens through her singing that song," she adds, and realizes that it was a logical release of tension for a North American audience.

"But as a non-Jewish German, when Nelly sings to Johnny, I am in the position of Johnny," Hoss says. "And watching this scene, a German audience would cry because it is horrible, the mirror she holds in front of you, in front of the country."

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