As Phoenix’s Nelly Lenz, a concentration camp survivor searching for her husband in post-war Berlin, Nina Hoss walks like a hobbled marionette. It’s just one way she wears her trauma on the surface. Another is the lacerations on her face, although those are soon “fixed” by a plastic surgeon. Nelly’s transformation is subtle enough that when she finds her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), he doesn’t recognize her. But he does think she looks enough like his missing wife that he asks her to impersonate herself in order to help him get her inheritance.
Directed by Christian Petzold, Phoenix is a moral and psychological quagmire, in which national questions of identity, shame, memory and transformation play out in this central relationship. Before the war, Nelly was a singer and Johnny was her accompanist. Whatever joy that partnership once had, they’re now performing a nightclub lament. Consider the music hall where Johnny works: a rat hole amidst rubble, its throbbing red sign reminiscent of the haunting green that pulsated in Hitchcock’s similarly themed Vertigo.
The question of whether or not Nelly will reveal her true identity simmers beneath each scene. It would seem exploitative, if Petzold didn’t manage the perfect payoff in the film’s final moments. Without giving too much away, I’ll only say that Hoss caps off a virtuoso performance by delivering a rendition of Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s “Speak Low” that’s at once cruel, heartfelt and victorious.