An intense psychological thriller, with both leads acting up a storm in a confined space, making us think and feel all at once and constantly. Reviewers cite a similarity to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which I either don’t remember or didn’t see, but I felt an echo of Gaslight in the manipulative husband-wife relationship, or even Pygmalion, as Johnny tries to mold the girl from the gutter into a facsimile wife. How Nelly grows from an Auschwitz burn victim to regain her identity is the core of the movie, and the only thing that makes clear sense.
Director Christian Petzold has brilliantly hit on postwar Germany as a fertile setting for stories of moral grays, and he has larded Phoenix with enough ambiguities of plot to make us question not only the characters’ actions and motives, but also what exactly happens. Perhaps the characters are metaphors, but for what? Who is Lene, the first character we see, and what is her connection to Nelly? Are they would-be lovers? If she is “Mrs. Winter,” where is Mr.? Is Nelly Jewish? She claims not to be, but why? If this is so obvious, what is the meaning of the scene where Lene discovers an official document that lists Nelly as a Jew? More important, did Johnny betray her to the Nazis? The evidence is strong but circumstantial, and it comes from Lene, who has her own reasons for drawing Nelly away from him.
Some internet reviewers have complained about the implausibilities of the story – that things as major as the facial reconstruction and as minor as the pivotal Kurt Weill song – are anachronistic. To me, these are beside the point, the point being the psychological struggles of Nelly and, to a lesser extent, Johnny. What does bother me immensely, in retrospect, is the introduction, late in the movie, of a paper documenting Johnny’s divorce from Nelly. Why would Lene withhold this information until her deathbed, when she is so insistent that Nelly forget him? Why does he think – and this is crucial to the story – that he will share in her fortune if he has divorced her? Maybe he is planning to remarry her and we just haven’t been told? Is no one else among their friends aware of this divorce? Would this document have survived the war, and would Lene have been able to find it? (Again, this last cries out for the missing backstory of who she is.) Maybe this is all explained in the novel upon which the film is based, and maybe some answers would be clearer to a German audience, but I felt a bit cheated: Johnny, who was introduced as a cad, was being progressively portrayed in a more sympathetic (and brighter) light before this thunderbolt came out of the blue. It seemed the director was done with the moral grays and wanted to set up a clearer black-and-white contrast to make the final scene as dramatic, and satisfying, as it was. Not that it resolved much, which in the end was another, if accidental, beauty of the movie.