Christian Petzold’s Phoenix builds to one of the greatest endings in movie history, which is especially remarkable given the movie it’s riffing on—Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo—has a strong claim to that shortlist, too. The key word here is “builds,” because the emotion that surfaces so powerfully in those final moments is sublimated in all the scenes that precede it, which are clouded in mysteries of love, betrayal, and identity in post-World War II Germany. Petzold invites the audience to follow a woman who returns from a concentration camp as the only member of her family left alive and reunites with a husband who may well have betrayed her to the Nazis. We never know quite what she’s thinking—and she doesn’t know, either—but because she’s played by Nina Hoss, Petzold’s longtime collaborator and muse, her face is a puzzle we’re compelled to solve, even as her character’s actions are enigmatic to the end. Petzold relies wholly on the impact of that final scene to validate everything that preceded it, and without Hoss, he doesn’t get there.
By this point, he has reason to feel confident. Petzold and Hoss have collaborated six times now, and Phoenix is just the latest example of Hoss playing a woman who has to navigate treacherous terrain by keeping her feelings in check. There are scenes in Petzold’s films when Hoss is asked to emote—often when she’s finally forced to confront the hostility she’s so carefully avoided—but more often she has the far more difficult task of carrying a film through emotional reserve. Typically, the hostility she’s avoiding comes from the world of men: In 2007’s Yella, Hoss plays a woman who leaves her hometown abruptly to get away from her obsessive, abusive ex-husband, but winds up in trouble of another kind when she partners with a shady businessman in her bid for a new life. In 2008’s Jerichow, an ingenious neo-noir updating of The Postman Always Rings Twice, she’s caught between an abusive husband and a volatile drifter who was dishonorably discharged from the war in Afghanistan. In Petzold’s last film, 2012’s Barbara, she’s an East German doctor whose suspected subversion gets her banished to an outpost in the sticks, where she remains under watch by both government agents and her colleagues at a country hospital.
What these films have in common is that Hoss is playing characters who are trying to leverage control over a situation where they have no real power or agency. Yella and Jerichow have her trying to wriggle away from abusive relationships that keep haunting her even when she finds someone new. Barbara seethes with the dread and paranoia of East Germany in the 1980s, when the loosening grip of the Eastern Bloc led to desperate assertions of power over the citizenry. Hoss’s doctor cannot trust anyone, including a new colleague who appears to be sympathetic to her, but her guarded state winds up heightening the misconception that she’s an arrogant big-city type. She’s trying to thread a very thin needle and Hoss, as ever, holds a firm posture and gives nothing away, leaving the audience to look for hairline cracks in her facial reserve.
As Nelly Lenz in Phoenix, Hoss again treads lightly as an Auschwitz survivor whose facial reconstruction surgery—shades of Eyes Without A Face— renders her unrecognizable, even to her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Before the war, Nelly and Johnny were a nightclub act, with her a singer and him a pianist, but her homecoming is complicated by her friend’s certainty that Johnny ratted her out to the Nazis under interrogation. When Nelly finds Johnny working as a busboy at Phoenix, a nightclub in the American sector of Berlin, he doesn’t know her true identity, but can spot enough of a resemblance to the Nelly he knew that he ropes her into a scheme to claim the “dead” Nelly’s inheritance. Thus begins a Vertigo-like ritual with Johnny in the Jimmy Stewart role and Nelly in Kim Novak’s, with the big difference being that Nelly holds the secret of her true identity and it’s Johnny who’s left in the dark.
Johnny’s obsessive quest to mold Nelly into a missing woman is similar to Stewart’s, but Petzold and his co-screenwriter, the late Harun Farocki, shift perspective from the male gaze in Vertigo to a woman sorting out answers about her husband and herself. It’s not entirely accurate to say that Nelly is motivated by a need to know the truth about Johnny’s betrayal; there’s something deeper and unsettled about their relationship that she’s trying to clarify. On a fundamental level, Nelly is lost: She has no family and no husband, she’s not at home in Germany after the Nazis, and she’s not interested in following her friend to new terrain in Palestine. At the same time, she’s quite literally a changed woman, with a brand new face and a related lack of commitment to attach that face to a specific person. One possible reason why she agrees to go along with Johnny’s scheme is that it gives her a new life, however twisted and perverse.
Though Petzold and Farocki’s gender shift makes a difference, it’s still possible for an actress, even a very good actress, to make Nelly seem as passive an object as Novak in Vertigo. And the same holds true of Hoss’s other roles in Petzold’s films, which have her playing characters who are up against the forces of history or masculine desire or both. But Hoss has that rare ability to think her way through a film and turn questions about her characters into mysteries that take the full running time to understand. In Phoenix, that moment of clarity doesn’t come until a few minutes before the credits, but part of the shock of it is that we don’t realize just how diligently and patiently Hoss had been setting the table for it all along. Nelly finally takes decisive action and Hoss, with exquisitely deliberate speed, opens up the floodgates.