Phoenix was one of the best films of 2015 (the U.S. release date): taut, nerve-racking, gorgeous in a lurid way. It has a Vertigo vibe, leaning heavily on Hitchcock’s German Expressionist influences, but marked with Angst of a more sociopolitical nature, as if the likes of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang had shot films just after WWII instead of the two decades before. It begins with a woman, an Auschwitz survivor (played by Nina Hoss), entering a hospital for facial surgery to repair the damage done by brutal guards. She wants to look the way she did before, so her husband can recognize her. After the operation, she finds him waiting tables at a nightclub called Phoenix. He approaches her, says she has a slight resemblance to his dead wife (he’s long assumed she died in the camps), and proposes a scheme: Pretend to be her, go claim her holdings (worth tens of thousands of dollars), and the two of them will split the fortune. She goes along, seeking… revenge, exposure, the renewal of their romance? It’s ambiguous; she’s ambivalent in her own thoughts. A muted thriller, the film is also a meditation on the loss of self that comes with catastrophic destruction, on the scrapping struggle to rebuild, and the ultimate need to abandon the past, whether to carve out a new way forward—a new land, a new self—or to retreat in betrayal or oblivion. (The film’s characters choose, or fall into, one option or another.)

Hoss is a wondrously subtle actress whose range hasn’t been at all displayed in her few American films and TV shows (small roles in Homeland and A Most Wanted Man). This is her sixth film with director and co-writer Christian Petzold, who regularly explores the tensions between illusion and reality, the political and the personal. He has a fine visual sense, especially adept at using color (or the lack of it) to express undercurrents of emotion. His use of music to suggest wavering themes, in this case different versions of Kurt Weill’s “Speak Softly,” is white-light haunting.

The Criterion Collection’s 1080p transfer—struck from a 2K scan of the original 35mm negative, with a surround soundtrack mastered at 24 bits from the original digital audio master files—is nearly as riveting as the print I saw at the IFC Center in New York. Colors are drenched and dreamy, or smoldering and murky (with fine shadow detail), depending on the desired effect. The special features consist mainly of interviews with Hoss, Petzold, and others in the cast and crew, talking very eloquently and perceptively about the historical context and the artistic choices they made.

Studio: Criterion Collection, 2014
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Audio Format: 5.1 surround
Length: 98 mins.
MPAA Rating: --
Director: Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf