Nelly survived Auschwitz, but not without taking a bullet to the bridge of her nose. Once her shattered features are put back together by a surgeon, she wanders the rubble-heaped streets of Berlin in search of her husband, Johnny. When she finds him, he isn't surprised to see her. He doesn't recognize her with her new face. But she does look familiar enough that he offers her a role in a scam he's brewing—he wants her to impersonate his dead wife so that he can get his hands on her inheritance.
Like Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," German writer/director Christian Petzold's "Phoenix" uses a noir-ish plot as a frame for a story of mistaken identity, romantic obsession, and suppressed betrayal. But unlike Hitchcock's film, the romantic obsession here is hers, not his, and unlike "Vertigo," Phoenix has much more on its mind, particularly post-war Germany's struggle to come to terms with its own shattered self. Perhaps the most critical difference: "Vertigo" is a masterpiece, while "Phoenix" merely comes close.
Petzold is working familiar turf here. For the fifth time in his past six features, he cast the estimable Nina Hoss as his protagonist. As in past Petzold films such as 2007's "Yella" and 2012's "Barbara," she plays a woman haunted by her past, and by Germany's. (Ronald Zehrfeld, who played opposite Hoss in "Barbara," shows up here too, as Nelly's raffish Johnny.) Once again, the director brings a patient, unflashy filming style to bear.
That's good, because he asks a lot of viewers. The first third of the movie revolves around Nelly's rescue and resurrection by her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a tough Zionist. Some back story fills itself in—Nelly, a cabaret singer, was dragged from her hiding place and arrested a few days after Johnny, a pianist, was briefly detained, sparking suspicion that he turned in his own wife to the Gestapo. Other details remain sketchy. For every clue that Petzold makes good on later in the film, he drops a red herring or leaves a tantalizing blank.
But Johnny is the only family Nelly has left, so rather than moving to sunny Palestine with Lene, she tracks him down. And when she does, she overlooks seeing him drag a young woman from a nightclub and into a dark alley. She overlooks the fact that he doesn't recognize her. She overlooks the fact that he inveigles her into a plot to steal her murdered family's fortune. She moves into his tiny basement apartment and submits to his attempts to make her more like her old self. He makes her practice her own handwriting. He asks her to dye her mousy brown hair back to pre-war Nelly's black.
And he looks at her, and she looks at him, and he doesn't see her, and she sees the man she still loves.
But the cognitive dissonance that the film depends on comes close to swamping it at times. The fact that Nelly's Jewishness is never remarked on or explored feels matter of fact. So when, during a squabble with Lene, she says, "I am not a Jew," it raises a question about her identity that no one was asking. Watching her meekly bend to Johnny's plan to become more like her old self while silently waiting for him to recognize her as that person starts to seem as absurd as it is poignant. "I know he loves her," Nelly tells Lene, referring to herself, Nelly.
"Vertigo" is a love story. "Phoenix" is something else. It's not quite an allegory—Petzold is far too subtle a filmmaker for that. But Johnny bears a resemblance to the ordinary Germans who witnessed the crimes of the Third Reich and didn't really see them, and who picked up their lives after the war and tried to move on. Nelly—and, in the end, Lene—stand in for many of Europe's surviving Jews, secretly broken and struggling to find a way forward that makes sense. "Barbara," for one, is a less ambitious but perhaps more thoroughly successful film. Still, any qualms about "Phoenix" will likely be swept away by its climax. Johnny's plan moves toward its completion, the themes step back, and the plot threads come together for an agonizing reveal and an emotional wallop that Hitchcock would be proud to call his own. •
"Phoenix," directed by Christian Petzold, opens Aug. 21 at the Charles Theater.