Christian Petzold’s German melodrama, Phoenix, features subtle performances for a narrative stretching credibility, but the film rewards with wonders for those that can play along with a tale where a lead seems unable to see what the viewer so easily can. One of these players is Nelly (Nina Hoss), a Jewish former club singer and concentration camp survivor, who has undergone facial surgery after the war but looks largely the same thanks to the doctors’ work. The second is Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the husband who seemingly betrayed his wife and contributed to her SS capture. The two reunite in Switzerland, except Johnny is so convinced that Nelly is dead that, upon her presentation of herself to him, he immediately sees her not as his wife, but as a potential suitable doppelganger that he can train to help him secure the “real” Nelly’s family fortune.
As well as running rampant with Vertigo-riffing, Phoenix can also be read as a post-war play on the concept of gaslighting. For the uninitiated, gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which information delivered by an abuser is twisted, spun or selectively omitted to favour them, or where false information is deliberately presented with the intent of making a victim doubt their own perception, memory and sanity. The longer Nelly spends with Johnny (under the guise of “Esther” learning to play “Nelly”), the more it seems that she has fallen for what he says. Speaking to her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), she says, “I know he loves her. I don’t believe he betrayed her.” Not only has Nelly come to project his version of her in a context where he is not present, but she vocally distinguishes ‘Nelly’ as a separate person from herself. Despite there being explicit proof of his betrayal of her during the war (courtesy of Lene), Nelly’s perception is increasingly manipulated by the actions Johnny takes in this most Vertigo-like of setups.
Though, indeed, part of Phoenix’s tension is that it’s rarely ever clear as to whether Johnny legitimately doesn’t recognise his wife (a tactic many less than enamoured with Phoenix have found a very tough pill to swallow as a cinematic conceit), or whether this is all a master manipulation by a man trying to still claim a potential fortune, hastily and drastically making the most of the nasty (for him) revelation that Nelly is very much alive. The speed with which he ‘recruits’ her on the night of their first face to face Switzerland encounter lends some credence to the latter idea, as do moments where there seems to be recollection in his eyes during the training process, only for him to suddenly suggest that everything she’s doing to ‘imitate’ Nelly is completely wrong.
That said, Phoenix’s devastating final scene pretty much erases a need for the specifics of the moral blindness. It’s an emotional crescendo in which barriers put up to protect oneself come crashing down, and the film’s real message — a skewering of the ways in which marriages can become their own form of damaging self-preservation and subtly elaborate betrayals — becomes all too clear: how sure can you be that you really know the one you love, even if they’re there with you the entire time?
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow, Scotland. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is currently the managing film editor at Sound On Sight, and a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny.