This German film has been compared to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and it’s easy to see why. It’s the story of a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp who returns to the ruins of Berlin in 1946, where she looks for her husband. When we first meet Nelly, her head is completely wrapped in bandages, and she soon has reconstructive surgery done on her face. Her husband, Johnny, when she finally finds him, doesn’t recognize her but thinks she looks enough like his (as he thinks) dead wife that he asks her to impersonate the wife in order to help him get his hands on the money his wife inherited when the rest of her family was killed in the camps. He takes it upon himself to train Nelly to look and act like his wife, and thus he is doing pretty much the same thing that Jimmy Stewart does to Kim Novak in the second half of Vertigo.
Of course, one big difference between the two movies is that Phoenix is from the woman’s point of view, and while there’s an element of Nelly wanting to remake Johnny into the dream Johnny whom she believes has always loved her, it’s more a story of how his desire to remake her into a simulacrum of his wife for his own purposes gradually reveals the truth to her. It’s the truth that her friend Lene has been telling her all along, but it’s an inconvenient truth.
It’s also not the whole the story, which is equally about how Nazi Germany treated the Jews and how German gentiles faced or did not face their moral culpability after the war. Lene wants to move to Palestine with Nelly, and she’s looking at apartments in Haifa and Tel Aviv. Nelly, however, has no interest in Palestine but only in finding her gentile husband. So I guess the movie is also about the urge to forgive and forget and forge new bonds with one’s persecutors. It’s about the difficulty of facing the painful truth that those we love and trust can betray us.
This is not a thriller, but more of a psychological study. There is an element of mystery to it, because we don’t fully understand the history of Nelly and Johnny until the end. It’s also a kind of crime story, but the crimes all happened in the past. Mostly it’s about Nelly becoming herself again — or perhaps for the first time — and not the person Johnny wants her to be. The irony of identity in Phoenix is in some ways just as perverse as that in Vertigo, but it isn’t so wrapped in a sense of tragic romanticism. Indeed, what it’s wrapped in is more a tragic nationalism, as a German Jew tries to regain her sense of German identity in the face of Nazi history. That it manages to achieve a feeling of liberation in the end is a small miracle, if only of story.