William Shakespeare and Alfred Hitchcock would be very, very proud. However, even they didn’t have the privilege of working with Nina Hoss, who plays Nelly in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, a movie about one woman’s “reconstruction” in post-WWII Berlin – a city where countless piles of rubble surround lone cabaret clubs. The Hitchcock element sneaks in with Nelly’s reconstructive facial surgery after being wounded by a bullet in a concentration camp, allowing Petzold to play with ideas about the illusion of identity – Nelly’s husband, whom she suspects may have sold her out to the Nazis, thinks she is dead. Phoenix is no thriller, but the way Petzold maintains a consistent level of emotional suspense and tension is undeniably Hitchcockian. It is thick in mood and atmosphere, high contrast lighting often keeping Nelly’s face shrouded in shadow as she walks through shabby apartments or war-torn inner city alleyways, with a final scene as powerful as any I’ve seen this year, and that’s largely due to Hoss’ performance.
Although Petzold certainly imbues the picture with plenty of artifice, there are numerous moments of somber realism throughout Phoenix, which would have fallen flat if not for Hoss. Petzold smartly lets the camera linger on her face often. It’s quiet, slowly paced movie, and often the emotional charge comes subtly through Hoss’ eyes. Every look, blink, and gesture conveys something, something we in the audience may not know, but we search for, like any great mystery. Her eyes carry the weight of all the unspoken atrocities she witnessed during her time in the concentration camp, and give even the quietest scenes emotional punch. Petzold and Hoss make Phoenix a complex and fully realized examination of the post war search for identity (Nelly’s and a country’s at large), with the echoes of Vertigo driving it forward.
★★★★ out of 5