There's something undeniably medicinal about the notion of yet another film in which the psychic scars of the Holocaust play out in a post-war European domestic drama. Even when they are very, very good, the questions loom: what's actually left to say about this topic? And dear God, is it at least being said in anything like a flexible, interesting way?

To the first, I have no present answer, but Phoenix, director Christian Petzold's fearless attempt to coax some life out of that well-tilled soil, provides a hell of an answer to the second. Adapted (with an enormously significant change of national setting) by Petzold and Harun Farocki from Hubert Montelheit's 1961 novel The Return from the Ashes, the movie picks up not terribly long after the end of the Second World War, to find woman named Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf) forcing her way into occupied Germany with a disconcerting passenger: a woman whose face is almost completely obscured by blood-soaked bandages. This is Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), and she is our phoenix for the evening: a Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz, she has been shot in the face, and with Lene's help, she's able to receive reconstructive surgery in Germany that makes her look only somewhat like she did before the war. Nelly, the sole survivor of her family, has just come into a huge inheritance, and Lene wants the pair of them to use it to flee to Palestine and take place in the establishment of a hoped-for Jewish state there; Nelly, however, would rather try to reconnect with her husband Johnny (Ronald Zerhfeld), a piano player at a cabaret called Phoenix. I am extraordinarily happy to say that this detail is permitted to rise up in the background, without ever becoming A Thing.

From the moment that Lene tetchily reveals the bandaged Nelly to an inquisitive American border guard, Phoenix has been happy to operate as a thriller more than a prestige drama, but it's only when Nelly meets up with Johnny that the full range of its intentions in that direction become clear. Johnny can't quite see through Nelly's new face to see his presumed-dead wife, but he's struck by the vague sense of resemblance. She plays along, feeding him a false name, and agreeing to his plan to get the "late" Nelly's inheritance by having her pose as herself. The subterfuge comes from cautiousness: Lene is convinced that Johnny was involved in selling Nelly out to the Gestapo, and Nelly is anxious to confirm her husband's attitudes before she reveals himself.

So what we have, quite unexpectedly, is a two-pronged Hitchcock riff bent towards asking merciless questions about German identity and German morality in the immediate wake of Germany's perpetration of the greatest crime against humanity in recorded history. There is on the hand the tension of Nelly's uncertainty: is Johnny in love with Nelly, or with "Esther", or is he just a murderous creep so anxious for money that he'd betray his wife to the Nazis - if it's the latter, we're all the most anxious about the way he keeps marching right up to figuring out that this new woman is his dead wife. There is, on a different hand, the sickness of the film's Vertigo homage, as Johnny teaches Nelly how to impersonate Nelly, and she goes along with it for reasons of her own erotic obsession.

That gives the viewer a lot to gnaw on even without factoring in the setting of a rubble-strewn, ghostly Germany, and in particular the off-kilter dreamworld of Phoenix itself, which resembles a bird rising from the ashes less than it does a reanimated corpse twitching and singing hallucinatory versions of American pop songs in pasty white makeup. Phoenix's depiction of post-war Germany is absolutely terrific, right on par with any of the films actually shot in that place at that time, with a little bit less terrible moral grandeur and more willingness to use the setting for mood as much as to provide a visual op-ed on the state of European culture in 1945. Maybe this is an exploitative thing; maybe it's part of what makes Phoenix such a cracking good thriller.

Which it very much is. Petzold wastes nothing in putting across the essentials of his stories and characters - the film clocks in at a curt, efficient 98 minutes, and it feels about half that long - and the result is a movie that places us right alongside Nelly in a dizzying approximation of freefall, punctuated by a final scene that's hair-raising in how simply it drops bombshells, and ends briskly and brutally in exactly the way the film has always needed. It's not at all fussy, or embellished - the bombed-out mise en scène is inherently terrific, but the visual style is all business (more than one critic has compared it to film noir, which makes absolutely no sense to me), relying on the content of the shots to generate a sense of nervousness, uncertainty, and dread, rather than the particular way those shots are framed and lit, or stitched together. Which is hardly the same as claiming that Phoenix is indifferently made: the very brusqueness of its aesthetics feed back into its unstinting pace and the headlong pitch it makes into the very fucked-up matter of Nelly's dance with her husband.

And that brings us to Hoss, whose performance is one of the shining highlights of the movie year. There are a lot of things that could be pulled out of Nelly, a gorgeously multi-faced role in the midst of a screenplay that's full of ideas and agreeably coy about spelling them out. Hoss explores many of them, mixing and matching oppostional impulses in sometimes startling combinations. The character's love for, and fear of her husband are always the driving engine of the film, and Hoss always has both of those on hand, however the balance towards one side or the other works out; but she layers in other things as well, with multiple different kinds of nervousness at different stimuli, and a remarkable mixture of joy and disgust at having the opportunity to re-imagine her own identity, first as Esther, then as Nelly Mk. 2. In her two-handers with Kunzendorf, a miraculous scene partner of tartness and passion, she lays out ambivalence about her character's Jewish heritage that adds a completely different area of self-doubt.

Hoss, more than anything else, provides Phoenix with its emotional core: I'm not sure if credit should go to Petzold & co. for making such a subtle movie that does its best work through extra-textual means, or if credit should go to Hoss for so splendidly redeeming a script that hasn't quite finished forming itself. Either way, she's great, the character's great, and the film is damn good. Perhaps it rests too heavily in basic "shabby little shocker" territory, with Zerhfeld and the script's necessarily surface-level characterisation of Johnny cutting off some chance for the film to be a really full character study, instead of a thriller with one particularly great character in it. And yet, is that even a criticism. Good thrillers aren't any less valuable than good character studies or good diagnoses of social rot, and Phoenix manages in its best moments to be all three.