A movie is on the right track when the first film that comes to my head when I think of it is Vertigo. I guess I’ll share a little secret of mine and admit that Vertigo is my favorite film of all time. The movie has done something for me every time I’ve rewatched since I saw it for the first time when I was 12. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking experience that’s centered on this epic, doomed love built by two equally lost souls. The places the film goes to are still as shocking to me as the first I saw them. So with that said, a film like Phoenix is on some sort of positive path when I can legitimately compare it to my personal favorite movie. This is obviously not nearly as good as Vertigo, but for what it’s worth, Phoenix is a subtle, well-made drama that will impress a lot of fans of Vertigo as well as fans of other movies from Hitchcock’s filmography.
Nelly (Nina Hoss) is a holocaust survivor whose face was badly damaged while she was in a concentration camp. Along with that, the rest of her family is dead and her husband went missing. Due to the injuries, Nelly’s face is remodeled with surgery and after the procedure she looks like a cross between her old self and a totally new woman. Due to the rest of her family being dead, Nelly has inherited a lot of money and she must pick up the pieces living in a post war Germany. Not soon after she receives a new face, she stumbles across her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) working some odd jobs in a bar. He doesn’t recognize her but he notices how she almost resembles his thought to be dead wife. Not knowing the truth, Johnny hires Nelly to play herself so that they can collect her inheritance. Through this plot, a bizarre, questionable romance unfolds between these two old lovers.
I’m probably already hyping this film up a little more than it deserves so I should be a little bit clearer. This is less of a Hitchcockian movie involving the holocaust and more of a holocaust drama with bits and pieces of a Hitchcockian style movie. For as over the top and out there as the story seems, the way the film plays it is surprisingly grounded. The music isn’t grandiose and thrilling in scale. The movie isn’t particularly fast paced or energetic. Furthermore, the movie doesn’t have any shocking, huge moments besides the ending scene. For all intents and purposes, you could call this film a very slow burn.
Director Christian Petzold basks in the lonely, uncomfortable, surreal landscape of Germany right after the holocaust. The towns are broken and only a few of the buildings still stand amidst the rubble created because of the war. The setting much like its people is lost and desperately tries to survive from the thing that has destroyed it. Much like the romance between Johnny and Nelly and the mask Nelly must wear at the beginning, the broken silent towns hint at something far uglier hiding beneath. In a specific scene, a friend of Nelly is angered at how the entirety of Germany has been trying not to talk about the things the Jewish population suffered from at their hands. In her own words, the victims are expected to return and forgive.
This rant gets to the core of what the movie is trying to say with the romance in comparison to what was happening after the holocaust. It’s hinted that Johnny gave up to the Nazis where Nelly was hiding to save himself. It’s this denial of what he did that obsesses him when it comes to shaping how Nelly appears. In his attempts to “perfect” her into Nelly, Johnny has almost purposefully forgotten the reality staring him directly in the eyes. In this way, Germany is trying to rebuild itself without facing the horrors that it gave out over the past decade or so. On the other side of the coin, the victims of Germany or in this case Nelly are going along with this out of fear and the hope of acceptance. This movie uses its old school mystery storyline to paint a picture of the quiet chaos that was going down during the reconstruction of Germany.
To admit what is so amazing and a bit unsatisfying about the final scene of the flick, I have to stress that this is a very slow film where the thrills come more from characters talking than anything else. Unlike Hitchcock, Petzold doesn’t ever seem to be going big on twists or murders and everything is played very natural and raw. It’s as I said, a slow burn. However, this movie ultimately proves that it is building to something that is worth the wait with this brilliant, jaw dropping moment involving an old song. I really don’t want to spoil it but it is an amazing scene that starts to put into perspective what the film has been saying all along and it also features a pretty impactful moment for its two main characters. Here, Nelly does something which would basically be the equivalent of dropping the mic. The movie built up to this great moment and all it has to do now is stick the landing. The problem is, the movie ends with this scene huge game changing scene without showing anything else. The ending leaves you wanting more, but this is one of the rare occasions where that isn’t a positive attribute.
To compare, Boyhood and Gone Girl are two films that have endings that leave you wanting to see more. But those movies do it in a good way because the endings to those two movies still seem complete and satisfying. There is a fine line between having an open ending and an incomplete one. Phoenix just doesn’t feel like a complete movie to me. It felt like this movie led to something great and just as it was hitting that, it started the credits. The movie is like a roller coaster that stops a quarter of the way down. It’s a shame because the scene is one of the most impressive of the year. If the movie had gone a little bit farther and added just a little bit more detail to what just happened, I would have a totally different review of this movie. As it is, this movie has way too abrupt of an ending for me to fall head over heels in love with it.
Phoenix is an interesting, smart movie that has a lot to say about the social tensions in Germany following the war. The acting from the whole cast is great and the story does a good job invoking the big, twisted stories of the old Hitchcock films like Vertigo or Psycho. Who knows, maybe I would be calling this one of the best of the year if it had done a better job wrapping up. Unfortunately, the ending feels too unfinished for me to go one step beyond with this one. Nonetheless, I would still recommend it if you’re a fan of Hitchcock or historical dramas. Everyone else seems to love this so maybe I’m in the minority and you’ll be able find something more rewarding out of this films conclusion than I was.
Release Date: 7/24/2015
Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Kunzendorf
Directed by: Christian Petzold
Screenplay by: Christian Petzold and Harun Farocki
Based on the novel by: Hubert Monteilhet