It’s the black of night, and a lone car is stopped by American soldiers at the border of Germany after the liberation of the concentration camps at the end of World War II. The young soldier peers inside and sees a tall, wise Jewish woman driving. In the passenger seat sits a woman with bandages wrapped around her face. She is curled up in a blanket, avoiding the soldier’s gaze, but he demands she remove her bandages so he can see her face. We only see the soldier’s expression as she finally does. We see his eager smile sucked away. He swallows and lets them pass.
Writer-director Christian Petzold (“Barbara”)’s latest film, “Phoenix,” doesn’t hit you right away. It begins slow and contemplative. Nelly (Nina Hoss, a regular in Petzold movies like “Jerichow”), recovering from facial reconstruction surgery after she was rendered unrecognizable by a passing bullet, glimpses her new self in a shard of broken glass. She’s not happy. The only friend she has is Lene (Nina Kunzendorf, “Unspoken”), a surrogate mother who pays her constant attention throughout her recovery. No one from her old life knows she’s still alive. Most are dead, indicated by crosses scrawled above their heads on old photographs. But there’s one face without that fateful cross: her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, “Barbara”).
As Nelly sets to rebuild her life, everyone urges her to take advantage of this opportunity to restart. Her doctor, before the surgery, suggests she pick a completely different face, like that of a beautiful movie star. Lene wants her to move to Palestine with her, where they’ll both be safer than there in Germany. Nelly rejects all these suggestions. She just wants her old life back: the same face, the same friends and most of all, the same husband.
When Nelly finally finds Johnny, instead of telling him all that happened, she finds herself pretending to be someone else — pretending to be someone quite like herself, but not the same, because she’s afraid of the rumors, the idea that Johnny was the one who betrayed her and sent her to the camps in the first place. So Johnny and Nelly enter into a shocking, twisted relationship, with Nelly impersonating herself to help Johnny collect her inheritance money. All the while, Johnny observes her constantly, the gears in his brain turning. Who is this woman who looks so remarkably like his dead wife?
One of the most impressive accomplishments of “Phoenix” is its ability to avoid the pitfalls of its somewhat unbelievable premise. In a soap opera melodrama, Johnny would be a cartoonish villain, a greedy, soulless sociopath who only cares about money, but it’s clear he loves Nelly, regardless of whether or not the rumors are true. Just as easily, it could strain credibility that he can’t recognize Nelly when she has the same voice and the same general appearance. Yet perhaps somewhere deep inside Johnny, he knows it’s her from the very beginning. Even when Nelly emerges in her old favorite dress with her hair re-dyed to match her old self and asks, “Do you recognize me?” Johnny pushes her away. Denial is a powerful thing.
The biggest risk from a narrative standpoint is delaying the inevitable confrontation in which Johnny will realize his wife is still alive. From Nelly and Johnny’s very first scene together, it’s easy to groan and wonder, “Are we really going to have to wait until the last scene for him to figure this out?” Waiting so long could feel like plot-mandated wheel-spinning, but the film overcomes that trap by imbuing every scene with magnificent tension building towards the day when Nelly will come out of hiding.
If there is a flaw in the film, it lies in a third-act twist of sorts, a reveal of new information that could’ve just as easily come early on but must wait until the end so that the climax can be timed correctly. It’s also paired with a barely telegraphed tragic turn that feels unnecessarily grim. Still, as clumsy as this sequence may come across to some viewers, it serves its purpose well, setting up a ferociously tense climax devoid of extraneous characters or subplots.
Even if the rest of the film had disappointed, it’d be worth sticking around just for the final scene, which finds Petzold, cinematographer Hans Fromm (yet another of Petzold’s regulars) and the film’s outstanding cast firing on all cylinders. Almost certainly 2015’s best final scene, it’s an awe-inspiring display of suspense, shock, regret and devastation. As the lens blurs and the world silently falls to black, tears will spill and hearts will stop. It’s unforgettable.