Phoenix ended up on a lot of critics’ top ten lists last year, and it’s really not hard to see why. Psychological thrillers are a dime a dozen, but few aim for the heights that were reached by Alfred Hitchcock and succeed in not only emulating his style but in creating a new genre classic in its own right. However, the average American moviegoer has probably not been exposed to Phoenix, due to it being a German film that is almost entirely in that country’s native language. Let me assure you that Phoenix is well worth watching even with the potentially annoying subtitles, particularly if you are a fan of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Set in 1945 post-war Germany, Nelly (Nina Hoss) has just been released from a concentration camp, suffering from a bullet wound to her face. The injury requires reconstructive surgery, leaving her with a slightly different appearance than before, making her difficult to recognize. Upon renting an apartment with her best friend, Nelly seeks out her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), whom she still loves but may or may not have been responsible for turning her over to the Nazis. When he sees her, he does not recognize her, but thinks she is similar enough to his presumably dead wife to emulate her and collect her dead family’s inheritance.
What follows is a tense series of performances wherein we see layers of deception unfold. Nelly must pretend to not be herself in order to get close to her husband, but then must also meet Johnny’s expectations of how he remembers Nelly moving and behaving, which is not entirely accurate to how Nelly now is or ever was. The depths of these performances, whether it is Nelly’s vacillations between longing for her husband and meek subservience to his instruction, or Johnny’s ambiguously fond remembrances of his lost wife mingling with his lust for her inheritance, are truly engrossing, and it makes for a stellar character study that couldn’t have worked but for some amazing acting.
The cinematography is similarly astounding and encapsulates the emotional turmoil from scene to scene, even when all that is happening is two leads talking about their attempted ruse. Scenes where Nelly feels trapped take place in cramped quarters, and scenes where she feels close again to the love of her life exist in wide open, idyllic date spots. The film culminates in a fantastically shot scene that is inevitably how the film must have ended, but is done entirely without dialogue, relying only on visual cues and subtle changes in the actors’ faces. It ends a bit abruptly without a glimpse at the fallout of those final moments, but it is an ending that still works incredibly well.
I wouldn’t go so far to say that this is retroactively one of my favorite films from last year, but it does stand out to me as an incredibly well-made piece of film-making that deserves its due with American audiences. It doesn’t revolutionize the thriller and its biggest claim to fame is its allusions to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but it stands well on its own and achieves its goal of unsettling its audience with a tale of layered identity and potential betrayal.