Alfred Hitchcock's superb Vertigo gave us one of cinema's most memorable portraits of obsession, telling the story of a man who attempts to recreate the magic of a long-gone relationship by persuading a woman to imitate his dead lover. Christian Petzold's Phoenix takes an inverted approach to this same idea, telling the story of a woman who becomes obsessed with recreating an old relationship and who forces herself to do all of the role-playing. It's a fine psychological drama, but it's also more than that: a thought-provoking fable about cultural guilt, betrayal and identity loss, and an intimate encapsulation of two cultures attempting to grapple with the horrors of their past.
Phoenix tells the story of Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss, Barbara), a former cabaret singer and Holocaust survivor who has decided to return to Berlin after undergoing facial reconstructive surgery (she was shot in the face by the Nazis). Despite the surgeon's suggestions that Nelly might want to start fresh with a new face and a new identity, Nelly insists on looking as much like her old self as possible. The end result isn't quite a perfect match, but Nelly hopes it will be enough to make her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, Inbetween Worlds) recognize her. Nelly's friend Lene (Nina Kuzendorf, Woman in Gold) is extremely unenthusiastic about Nelly's plans, as she's convinced that Johnny betrayed Nelly to the Nazis to save his own skin. She tells Nelly this, but it seems to go in one ear and out the other.
Eventually, Nelly tracks Johnny down, and discovers that he is managing a nightclub called Phoenix. Unfortunately, Johnny doesn't recognize her, but does remark that she looks a little bit like his dead wife. Rather than revealing the truth, Nelly plays along, telling Johnny her name is Eva and agreeing to participate in Johnny's convoluted get-rich-quick scheme. It seems that Nelly has inherited a great deal of money, but Johnny is unable to claim it – so, he'll train Eva on how to “play” Nelly and have her collect the money.
The whole situation seems alternately unwise and demeaning, but Nelly doesn't view it that way. By pretending to be Eva pretending to be Nelly, she feels she is able to recapture some of the magic of the early days of her relationship with Johnny. “The way he talks about her... I feel jealous of myself!” she tells Lene. There's an element of Stockholm Syndrome at play here; that bewildering but oh-so-common tendency to return to an abusive relationship in the hope that things will be better this time. The metaphorical implications are even more challenging, as it eventually becomes clear that Johnny represents Germany and Nelly represents the Jewish people.
Once you recognize that, many pieces of the film attain profound power. While preparing to play Nelly, “Eva” tells a horrifying story about the concentration camps. Johnny doesn't like listening to it, even though he thinks it's supposed to be fictional. “If they ask, tell them that,” he mutters. “But they won't ask.” The German people have no desire to revisit their shame, even though that means substituting empty pleasantries for genuine empathy – to feel the pain of what Nelly has been through would mean acknowledging their role in that pain. Everyone is aggressively nice to Nelly/Eva, but no one really wants to talk to her. It seems bewildering that Johnny hasn't been able to recognize her, but that make a certain kind of sense, too: he has very personal reasons for not wanting to look too closely at someone who reminds him of Nelly.
Allusions to Vertigo appear on a regular basis throughout Phoenix, but Petzold doesn't attempt to mimic that film's bold visual flair. Instead, there are images that feel like muted, “real-world” riffs on moments from Hitchcock's stylish masterwork. Hoss' performance is a perfectly-calibrated piece of work, fully capturing the complex array of conflicted emotions Nelly is forced to reckon with. Zehrfield also does impressive work, playing a surly grouch of a man with deep sadness in his eyes – try as he might, he can't shake the guilt he feels. In their many scenes together, Hoss and Zehrfield depict characters walking around their feelings – hiding truths, misdirecting conversations and avoiding sore spots. Finally, in the film's closing scene, they share a moment that is agonizingly real. It's one of the strongest endings I've seen in some time; a moment carefully and subtly foreshadowed throughout the film that attains extraordinary symbolic power. For much of its running time, Phoenix is an absorbing surface-level psychodrama, but eventually reveals itself as an emotionally overwhelming parable about the necessity of confronting the ghosts of history. It's one of the year's best films.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Year: 2015