It could be a plotline out of a 1940s Hollywood tear-jerker: A woman, tragically disfigured, is given a new face through plastic surgery. Her rat of an ex-husband doesn’t recognize her but thinks this “new woman” looks enough like his dead wife to reclaim her inheritance. Because she still loves him, she keeps quiet and goes along with the ruse. Paging Barbara Stanwyck, right? I’d watch that.
But Christian Petzold’s coolly wrenching “Phoenix” takes place in Germany in 1945, amid the rubble of bombed-out buildings and the chaos of occupying armies. Nelly (Nina Hoss) is a Jew and a concentration camp survivor, and the husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), is an easygoing German who may have turned her over to the Nazis. “Phoenix” is about aftermath, emotional and political, and about accountability, too. It keeps its compact with the melodramas of old, but it is first and foremost a moral tale, and an overpowering one.
The eyes that look out from the swaths of bandages at the start of the movie are immense and searching; they belong to Hoss, who has been Petzold’s muse for five films now. (Stateside viewers may recognize her as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s weary fellow spy in last year’s “A Most Wanted Man”). Their previous collaboration, “Barbara” (2012), just missed getting nominated for a foreign language Oscar; it probed the medical, ethical, and romantic obligations of life in 1950s East Germany. Petzold is a filmmaking natural, but his work can be cerebral; it’s Hoss who provides their movies with a conscience and a heart.
A cabaret singer before the war, Nelly can now barely speak, let alone carry a tune; her identity-wipe seems complete. She’s cared for by Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a brisk fellow Jew who knows the truth about the beloved Johnny and who urges her friend to move with her to Palestine. Since Lene is obviously in love with Nelly herself, there’s a romantic triangle discreetly laid atop the proceedings. But the focus of “Phoenix” is on Nelly as she comes back to herself by becoming another woman — the woman she once was and who Johnny wants her to be.
Old movies hover in the background of this film, generally and specifically. Nelly’s bandages early on render her a living ghost, like Edith Scob’s character in the French art thriller “Eyes Without a Face” (1960). The premise throbs with the proto-feminist “what if” of women’s weepies like Stanwyck’s “No Man of Her Own” (1950). And the scenes in which Johnny, genial, opportunistic, and dense, coaches this strange woman in the art of behaving like his wife pulse with the perverse make-over metaphysics of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” this time seen from Kim Novak’s side of the fence rather than Jimmy Stewart’s.
You may want “Phoenix” to get a little crazier than it does, if only to honor the hothouse style of those classic melodramas. (I kept wondering what that old Hollywood Teuton Douglas Sirk might have done with this material.) But Petzold has made exactly the film he wanted, a slow-burner with a heartbreaking heroine at its center. And it’s only gradually that you realize “Phoenix” isn’t just about a woman recovering her identity (by pretending to be someone who’s pretending to be her, no less) but about identifying her victimizers as well. These are more than just Johnny — much, much more, as the effortlessly damning final scene makes clear.
The keynote song of “Phoenix” is “Speak Low,” the haunting 1943 Kurt Weill composition (with lyrics by Ogden Nash!) about how quickly “the curtain descends” on love. Nelly listens to the tune obsessively but can’t bring herself to sing it until a certain point in the film. The effect is hair-raising. Like its heroine, “Phoenix” speaks low but with bitter clarity.