In a jarring homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Phoenix, Glen Falkenstein finds that like so many of the great director’s thrillers, Phoenix is all about the ending.
Set shortly after the end of the Second World War, concentration camp survivor Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) returns to Berlin, heavily disfigured and electing to undergo facial reconstruction surgery. Emerging as a semi-recognisable shadow of her former self, Nelly begins to track down her husband Johannes (Ronald Zehrfeld) who she is told may have betrayed her to the Nazis.
When she finds him, her husband, noticing the strong resemblance to the wife he believes deceased, convinces Nelly to pose as his wife so he can collect on her vast inheritance. Training Nelly to act like his departed spouse, Johannes convinces her to live with him while Nelly practices her writing, walking and speaking; slowly evolving into her former self.
Vertigo famously depicted a former police officer (James Stewart) constructing a woman in the image of his deceased lover only for he and the audience to slowly come to a harrowing realisation. Minor creative license and story improbabilities standard in such a tale were graciously overlooked by Vertigo’s dedicated audience, as they can be forgiven here, with the filmmakers in each case delivering an atypical narrative and impactful conclusion.
Phoenix is however distinct from Vertigo in that Vertigo’s twist comes much later in the film, with James Stewart’s character reaching the conclusion around the same time as the audience. In Phoenix we’re in on everything from the beginning, so the only suspense is just how and when everything is going to go down. Phoenix also shares some thematic roots with Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, featuring a plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas) physically reconstructing another to resemble his deceased wife. As with Phoenix, the only question is just how far it will go and where it will all end up.
Phoenix’s ending is comparatively simple to its thematic predecessors; disquieting and consuming, the film’s final moments will stay with you long after you’ve walked away. Dependent in no small part on its conclusion and strong relationship to Vertigo, amongst others, Phoenix manages to be a highly unusual and thought-provoking identity drama.