This confession may shock my fellow film nerds: Vertigo leaves me cold. My dislike of it was almost enough to turn me off from Phoenix once I heard about their parallels. I’m glad it didn’t, however, because I enjoyed Phoenix a lot more than I did Vertigo (calling it a better film may be pushing it).
First, Phoenix‘s setting – the Jewish community in Berlin immediately after World War II – is endlessly fascinating. There are enough throwaway details and solid character work, especially among the main character’s friends in the final scenes, that I could have watched a movie just about this era. (Her friend’s simple lament, “They killed my child” nearly reduced me to tears. More than anything, it reminded me of Hemingway’s famous six-word short story: For sale, baby shoes, never worn.)
That’s not to take anything away from the plot, which – as the title of this post implies – takes Vertigo‘s premise and deepens it with the historical setting. Much of its success is due to the strength of its leads, Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld. Hoss, playing a disfigured Holocaust survivor pretending to be her look-alike, is excellent; a scene in which she recounts her experience in the camps as if it were an overheard story she doesn’t believe adds layer after layer to her performance. But as good as she is, Zehrfeld is better. Playing a man we learn early on betrayed Hoss to the Nazis, it’s never clear what exactly his motives are. At times it appears he’s so craven that he’s only interested in passing Hoss off as his supposedly dead wife in order to collect her inheritance. But as the film builds to its climax – Hoss’ return as stage-managed by Zehrfeld – something else floats just under the surface. Is this scheme his fantasy, his attempt to rewrite history and to have his wife return alive from the camps rather than perish in them (as he assumes she has)? In those moments, Zehrfeld almost redeems his horrible character.
He’s not let off that easy, and neither are we. The ending has rightly been called the best scene of the year, and the rest of Phoenix more than lives up to its conclusion.