Warning: Spoilers pervade through this essay.
On much of its marketing Christian Petzold’s 2014 German film Phoenix is pitched as “a rich Hitchcockian tale” and “a postwar masterwork by way of Vertigo.” Entering the screening with this sonorous connection in mind (although rather than through the marketing, it was brought to my attention by Nick, who noticed the thematic similarity from the film's trailer), I set out to draw upon everything Hitchcock's 1958 film had taught me about mistaken identities, relationships, obsession, and longing and apply it to this post-WWII set drama. That was a task much easier said than done. Whilst moments of its plot bring traces of the iconic Hitchcock film to mind (primarily, a man transforms a woman's physical appearance so that she looks like his past love), Petzold’s effort is almost paltry and dull - and task in itself given its rich context of post-war Berlin.
The year is 1945 and formerly glamorous cabaret singer, Nelly has undergone facial reconstructive surgery to recover from one of the many traumas she experienced as a Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz. Post-surgery, Nelly stresses over her own failure to recognise herself and the fear that her missing husband, Jonny, won’t recall her either. On their first encounter, he doesn’t. What he does recognise however, is a potential get-rich-quick-scheme whereby a woman, who bares a vague resemblance to his former wife can impersonate her to receive a substantial inheritance. Choosing to impersonate herself, what follows is a series of Vertigo-like makeovers; an opportunity the lost and seemingly purposeless Nelly consumes in order to try and feel like herself again. The story alone sounds incredible, and then when paired with the phenomenal performances of Nina Hess and Ronald Zehrfeld, the film should be a transformative experience; a true reflection of the struggle for both individuals and cities to grasp on to any sense of identity in post-war Europe. Instead, so many of the subtleties and possibilites of the film’s message are lost behind a vague plot that teeters between featureless and unoriginal.
Reborn from the ashes of war, Nelly’s efforts at “recreation” are reflected in the film’s title, Phoenix. The film fails however to truly depict the struggle to overcome of post-war trauma in Nelly, instead, what audiences encounter is her struggle to cope with her new appearance. A vanity project that is only directly connected with the terror of concentration camps through one line: "I am no more now”. What Phoenix could represent is the struggle for identity that arose for the many, many victims of the Second World War in the years that followed it. It could be a film that depicts how identity can be both malleable and restrictive. Can you ‘reconstruct’, or rather, ‘recreate’ as Nelly prefers, a persona that feels like yourself but is also free from the burden that the labels of Nazi-era Germany had branded you with? It could be an in-depth thematic exploration of how so many individuals struggle to form an identity after their previous one had been the prominent vehicle in the deaths of their families and communities. The film could also serve as the perfect metaphor for post-war regeneration by a nation trying to reestablish an identity that was for two decades dominated by the Nazis.
I say it could, because the film never really manages to do any of these things. Any attempts at conveying such messages are lost under the plot of whether or not Nelly will reveal herself to Jonny. The film does have brief moments of tension: Nelly and Jonny as they teeter around the obvious - her uncanny naturalness in becoming Jonny’s wife so pertinent that she really only could be Nelly. Collate this with the incredible performances by all involved it seems jarring that the story which surrounds them does not do their efforts justice. The beauty and delicacy that cinematographer Hans Fromm and production designer Kade Gruber put into constructing the broken city of Berlin, also illuminates what could have been Petzold’s ambition of reflecting the dual metaphor, Germany too is struggling to find an identity post-Hitler.
What remains the most mysterious to audiences is Nelly’s intention behind ghosting as herself. Her intentions waver from vague and ambivalent, the later reaching to extreme (briefly seen when she is revealed to be garnering a pistol and the possible intention of murdering Jonny). Petzold never truly exposes audiences to what keeps Nelly from revealing herself to her former love, instead positioning her as driven to please him in his efforts to recreate his wife’s ‘aliveness’ for financial gain. The only evidence of motive lies in the question of Jonny’s involvement in Nelly’s 1944 arrest. The suggestion that Jonny did not actually betray her to the Nazis only weakens the story further. It is a topic that is skirted upon every now and again but ultimately never culminates to become a convincing story point. Perhaps the film would have been more enthralling had he actually not been complicit, particularly for anyone who had witnessed the trailer prior to watching the film, and who would be familiar with Nelly’s question (which reads much more like a statement), “You were there when she was arrested?” The sentence seems almost unnecessary when coupled with all the other evidence pointing against Jonny.
Juxtaposing with this vagueness are the intentions of Jonny. He does not seem captivated by this new woman’s likeness to Nelly, – as Scottie is of Madeleine in Vertigo, but rather sees an opportunity to advance his financial situation. “Alive she was poor, but dead she is very, very rich” – Jonny’s intention’s are revealed immediately upon his first interaction with new Nelly (now going by Esther) and further underscored as he reminds his new imposter wife, “It’s not me you need to convince. I know you’re not her.” Audiences are repeatedly reminded that he doesn’t want to be convinced. At no stage in the film does it seem Jonny actually wants his wife back the way that Scottie craves Madeleine, instead he seems so blinded by the possibility of earning the inheritance that he refuses to engage with the possibility it could be her.
Where Phoenix does bare some semblance of similarity to the thematic undertones of Hitchcock is in its alignment with the male perspective, although some could argue this is recurring in a large number of films. Hitchcock and Petzold are both directors who write about men who ‘create' women, specifically, women who will please them, whether that be through the fulfilment of an obsession in Vertigo, or through monetary gain in Phoenix. Both films largely rely on the ambiguities of motive to inspire debate amongst audiences, but subtleties aside, the films are heavily reliant upon an understanding that male desire is enough of a justification for so many actions. In Phoenix, this male perspective overwhelms any attempts by Nelly to establish her own identity. Most clearly evident where she questions whether a concentration camp survivor would be dressed in silk dresses and “shoes from Paris” only to hear the objections from Jonny that “they” – society at large – will not be convinced by anything else. Again, Phoenix had the potential to be a film which boldly examined a woman’s search to find her own rebirth following conflict, but instead it refers back to the tropes of so many films before it, those which are shaped and bound by relationships.
While many may claim the depth of character study that Vertigo delves into will remain unparalleled, it is to the detriment of Phoenix that a comparison is made at all. Despite my personal misgivings toward the Hitchcock classic for its misogynistic and unpleasant depiction of relationships and female ownership, it’s capacity to create in-depth chapter studies relating to grief, obsession, perception and sanity, are far more explicit and remarkable than that of Phoenix. The scenes in which Jonny enforces Vertigo-like makeovers upon Esther/Nelly had the potential to be clever and nuanced scenarios in which audiences are privy to who now has the upper hand in this doomed relationship. Instead, they are demoted to a less relevant aspect of the film. What could have been a haunting, Hitchcockian homage, and a melancholic search for identity, was instead a bland examination of mistaken identity.