he official sources of Christian Petzold's film are well-established. He's the second filmmaker, after J. Lee Thompson in 1965, to adapt a 1961 French novel called Return from the Ashes. The true sources go further back. As an archetype, the main idea echoes the Anastasia legend; someone is shaped into an imposter, but the person she's impersonating is actually herself. But I felt more than a hint of Vertigo, which is also based on a French novel, in this more guilt-ridden variant on the legend. Look at it from the man's point of view. He's creating a simulacrum of someone he's lost, whose loss he feels responsible for. Having perfected his new creation, and discovering that it is the person he'd lost -- though Phoenix is less complicated about this than Vertigo is -- he loses her again.
The story as Petzold and Harun Farocki adapted it has an archetypal simplicity and an archetypal gravitas compounded by the setting. Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) has barely survived a Nazi concentration camp and requires reconstructive surgery on her face. With a friend and fellow survivor, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) she returns to Berlin, where she had been a cabaret singer. In Berlin it looks like Germany has lapsed back to Weimar days, at least in the nightclubs. Nelly is looking for her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), an Aryan musician. When she finds him at the Phoenix Club, he's a waiter who doesn't recognize her after her surgery. And since she hadn't introduced herself, he takes her for a stranger who just happens to resemble his long-lost wife. The resemblance is enough that Johnny thinks he can pass the stranger, who calls herself Esther, as Nelly. As the apparent sole survivor of her family, Nelly would inherit a nice fortune, and if Johnny's scheme works, he'll share it.
A tug of war develops. While Johnny obviously needs "Esther" for his con, Lene wants Nelly to go to Palestine with her. Maybe it's me, but I got the impression that Lene's insistence on this is not entirely Zionist in nature. She clearly doesn't trust Johnny. I don't mean about now; Lene suspects that Johnny actually ratted Nelly out to the Nazis and is determined to prove it. But Nelly can't walk away. It's as if she knows she's in an archetypal story and expects a magical moment of recognition that will make everything right. However, Lene finds a way to force a decisive choice on Nelly, and I told you a couple of paragraphs ago how the story ends.
Some of the reviews I've read found it implausible that Johnny doesn't recognize Esther as Nelly immediately, since Nina Hoss doesn't really look much different in the present than she does in pre-war photographs. The difference definitely isn't as drastic as that between Kim Novak's Madeleine and her Judy in Vertigo, and Johnny doesn't have the handicap of not really knowing Anastasia that the grifters in the 1956 Ingrid Bergman movie labor under. I think we have to dismiss the objection with an admission that Phoenix is not an experiment in realism of any sort. However, there may be more going on with Johnny than such a dismissal implies. Seeing him make every arrangement for his own comeuppance, I was reminded of something the leftist thinker Slavoj Zizek said about Donald Rumsfeld. Zizek was riffing on Rumsfeld's famous comment about known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Zizek's idea is that there is, or must be a fourth category: the unknown known, the things we don't know that we know. Esther's true identity is arguably such an unknown known for Johnny, in which case his effort to transform Esther more completely into Nelly is subconsciously tempting fate -- specifically the fate he may think he deserves. Looking at it another way, recreating Nelly is a way for him to deny what he presumes happened to her, and to wash his own past clean. And Nelly's temptation to play along is just as much a form of denial, one she can no longer sustain after Lene's final intervention in her life.
However you analyze it, it builds up to a powerful closing scene that we really should have seen coming, in which Nelly reveals herself in a way Johnny can't mistake, and thus ruins him. While this is very much Nina Hoss's movie -- she and Petzold may be the hottest actor-director team in Germany since Kinski and Herzog -- this climactic moment is all about the desolate shame on Ronald Zehrfeld's face as he hears the undeniable voice and stares at her tattooed forearm. No further denunciation is necessary. It may be an imperfect film if you can't suspend disbelief, but you might find it a perfect ending anyway.