Reorienting the themes of Hitchcock’s binary women-in-peril pictures, Vertigo (1958) and Marnie (1964), Christian Petzold’s Phoenix is a fraught, horror-tinged marital drama which builds Sirkian malaise into the construct of a perverted Pygmalion thriller.
Nelly (Nina Hoss) is a death camp survivor searching for her husband in postwar Berlin, unaware that he may have betrayed her to the Nazis in the early 1940s. Disfigured by a bullet wound, she escapes and finds solace with a protective friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), who encourages her to undergo extensive facial reconstruction; when she does, the imagery recalls Georges Franju’s iconic Eyes Without A Face. From here Nelly begins her journey into the dark night, navigating a path through the rubble and expressionist shadows of a grieving, broken city…
She trails her spouse to the Phoenix club, expecting them to fall back into each other’s arms at first sight, but is distraught when he looks upon her and fails to recognize his wife. She goes back, and once again he looks on. But in the face of an unknown woman, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) begins to recognize an opportunity, and he embroils Nelly in a plot to pose as his “dead” lover and claim her sizable family inheritance.
What follows is a fascinating reversal of Stockholm conditions, as Nelly willingly becomes captive to her husband in the hope that their confinement, and an intimate method of physical adaptation, will rekindle his love. It’s a daring and highly effective skewering of Vertigo’s final act, where Nelly (who is more Scottie than Judy), rather than assuming a ‘mask’ to conceal her identity, allows her form to become pliable so that Johnny can realise that the woman he has found, and the woman he is trying to create, are one and the same.
The couple’s emotional Frankensteinisation of a dead wife is a scenario rich with complexity and nuance, and Petzold’s masterstroke is to keep the drama small rather than playing up its mythic qualities. Exactly how much Johnny suspects his muse’s true identity, and how far she needles his curiosity, are questions central to Phoenix’s gripping, slow-burn midsection, as Nelly’s gradual re-sculpting of the wife she and her husband remember from before the war can be read as an act of both catharsis and ensnarement.
Hoss and Zehrfeld’s performances excel at concealing this dilemma, their wracked faces instead feeding the film’s overbearing, albeit subtle sense of paranoia and fatigue. Beautifully modulated, their work keeps us on tenterhooks as Petzold slowly teases out narrative information, and builds to a finale of such elegant and restrained power that suddenly the central dynamic is flipped again on its head, and every glance and line-reading that has passed comes into question.
It’s vital that Petzold frames Nelly’s first glimpse at her new face in a shard of glass, nestled among the debris of her old, bombed-out home. It’s an image rippling with dread and crisis, symbolic of a narrative about shattered people trying to resume their lives based on the physical and emotional property of others, but it’s also a literal reflection of the toll war can take on individuals, rather than nations (most contemporary war films adopt a socio-historic rather than personal view).
Beyond the fascinating tête-à-tête at its heart, Phoenix’s detailed evocation of a disturbed postwar landscape is one of the most powerful in recent years, and its current acclaim should ensure that the film receives healthy distribution next year. If it does, it’ll be essential viewing.
Director: Christian Petzold
Stars: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf
Runtime: 98 Min