Too soon and too late: the problem of archive work in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix

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Christian Petzold’s Phoenix (2014) is set in the immediate aftermath of World War II but dedicated to Fritz Bauer, the man credited with initiating the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials almost two decades later. In light of other recent films about Bauer, this article argues that Petzold’s dedication indicates the director’s interest in “archive work” as a fundamental task of “working through” the Nazi past (performed emblematically by Bauer). It considers Petzold’s return to Bauer’s archive work in conjunction with the former’s attempt to reconstruct an archive image for the film’s opening, an attempt Petzold eventually abandoned. In the postwar world of Phoenix, it is too soon to perform the reconstructive work undertaken by Bauer—here reconstruction has to do, rather, with erasure and forgetting. For contemporary memory work, meanwhile, all that remains are the material traces of the archive—Petzold must turn to this material but sees that its (re)mediatization in mainstream Holocaust cinema has obscured its relationship to the traumatic events at stake. This article shows how Petzold uses his film to describe the difficulties of working with the archive from the positions of prematurity and belatedness, indicating as he does so how both the recuperative and the effacing work of postwar reconstruction inflect the material legacy available to subsequent generations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)173–195
JournalNew German Critique
Issue number1 (139)
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2020


  • Petzold
  • Phoenix
  • Archive Work
  • Fritz Bauer
  • Reconstruction
  • Holocaust


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