We meet Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) with her head swathed in blood-soaked bandages. She’s a Jewish concentration camp survivor who was seemingly sold out to the Nazis by her disloyal husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). After going through facial reconstruction surgery, she uncovers her face to find herself a new woman, nearly unrecognisable from her previous life. Despite being told of her husband’s betrayal, she decides to seek for him, eventually locating him at the Phoenix Nightclub where he now works. Johnny doesn’t recognise her, but sees enough resemblance in her to think she could pose as Nelly and use her likeness to obtain the family fortunes from his wife who he believes to be dead – thus beginning a complex game of dishonesty and deception.
Christian Petzold’s psychological thriller gained much love from many American critics when released last year, appearing in several best of the year polls with plenty hailing Hoss’s performance as the best of 2015. Reception in the UK wasn’t quite as positive, however, with one of the criticisms aimed at the main plot contrivance at the centre of the story. Accusations of implausibility aren’t completely without merit, and some of the actions of the central characters are certainly logically questionable, but it’s difficult not to be entangled by the web of lies and deceitfulness that runs throughout the film. The premise is so brilliantly devious, so toxic and fiendish; it would seem a shame to let rationality get in the way of that.
Zehrfeld is comfortably assured in the role of the slimy husband, but it is Hoss who owns the screen. The actress, who collaborated with Petzold on six previous features including Barbara, in which she plays an oppressed doctor living in 1980’s East Germany, gives an incredibly captivating performance as a woman haunted by the ghost of her former self. By portraying her character with a degree of ignorance and uncertainness, she manages to make her actions seem reasonable, even if only to herself, and this helps smooth over any narrative crack the viewer may have.
Phoenix has inevitably drawn comparisons with Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and though those similarities are present, it would be unfair to deny the film of its own peculiar uniqueness. This is an intelligent thriller that doesn’t rely on cheap twists or camera tricks to create suspense; keeping you on edge until the final reel where it culminates in an ending which is both beautiful and powerfully devastating.