Patrick Preziosi on Christian Petzold’s ‘Transit’ (2018)
The filmography of German director Christian Petzold is as dense as it is insular, a body of work whose films are inextricably linked to a fault. His grafting of classic cinema narratives (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Carnival of Souls, Vertigo) onto his own reckonings with Germany’s checkered history — and a morally confused present — is sometimes the most definitive point for a viewer to identify with. Capped off with borderline-obsessive recycling of motifs and players, Petzold’s is a career that is sometimes easier to admire at arm’s length.
His newest film, Transit, marks a significant departure, and not just for the omission of the almost always present Nina Hoss, but the way in which Petzold has bravely detached himself from both the past and the present. The film is based on the 1942 novel of the same name by anti-fascist author Anna Seghers, in which a Jewish man, recently escaped from a concentration camp, finds himself embroiled in romance and identity theft after fleeing occupied Paris for Marseille. Petzold keeps the historical plot entirely intact, yet shifts it to the present day.
Or is it contemporary Europe? There’s not one explicit reference made to what the exact time period could be, as brand new models of cars fill the streets of Europe and the German occupying forces resemble techno-fascistic SWAT teams–– Georg is even spotted on a surveillance camera at one point. But then there’ll be an offhand remark about concentration camps, and a glimpse of a manual typewriter. As past and present begin to blur, the sturdiest footholds are also the most unfortunate: the prevalence of fascism, and a subsequent refugee crisis transcending the strictures of historical fiction.
It’s a discomfiting landscape Georg (Franz Rogowski) occupies, which rings all the more dystopic for the pall of resignation that seems to have fallen. When told “Paris is being sealed off”, Georg doesn’t exactly act surprised; he even follows through with a friend’s offer to deliver some materials to a writer named Weidel, who’s been offered safe transit by the Mexican consulate. And when Georg finds Weidel has committed suicide upon arriving at the writer’s hotel, it’s simply on to the next task. The blankness that Rogowski wonderfully plays Georg with doesn’t necessarily make him a cipher, but rather a man perfectly aware of his status in a society where having to show proper documentation repeatedly is commonplace. Mistaken for the author himself, Georg doesn’t correct this mistake, instead playing it to his advantage; promised the same safe passage from Marseille.
But like many a Petzold character, nothing turns out that easy for Georg. He finds himself stumbling through plenty of bureaucratic red-tape, while filling the paternal void of a half-African boy named Driss, whose father was the one who died in his care. The spectre of Weidel manifests again, in the form of his estranged wife Marie (Paula Beer), who Georg undertakes a circuitous romance with. She’s just biding her time though, as the consulates have informed her of her husband’s presence in Marseille.
It’s a delirious repeating of “missed-connections” that Petzold pulls off because the man who’s appearing is, of course, Georg, and in effect, Marie is chasing nothing but a ghost, once again affirming Georg’s status of someone who could easily be erased. There comes a layered deception imbued with an unshakeable sense of inevitability as the romance swells between the two, and Petzold calls back to his own Wolfsburg (2003), when a man responsible for a hit and run of a young boy proceeds to begin a relationship with the unwitting mother.
It’s hard to discern the intentionality of a director like Petzold, whose fussiness results in an arguable unfussiness: achieving such simple compositions that give grounds for dense discussion outside the parameters of the film itself is something of a feat, but can also be deflected at every turn. Does a director who sees narrative as an endless series of coincidences also orchestrate the curtain to blow from a beautifully reflective opened window? Or is it all just a byproduct of positing actors as the primary focus so that the surrounding environment achieves its own kind of incidental composition?
Transit at least makes a case for the Petzold style being overwhelmingly deliberate while working within a larger context of byproducts and coincidental occurrences. It’s a style between improvisation and delicate structure. The more photogenic Marseille allows for Petzold to burrow deeper into his beloved reflective panes than he was able to in his non-space-centred films such as Yella (2007) or Jerichow (2008). However, he forgoes those films’ impressive economy to cast an impressive network of characters and little moments of cathartic action that are reminiscent of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949).
Transit remains deeply satisfying for the way in which Petzold’s cinematic grafting is so unabashed, and therefore, aerodynamic. While working within a now instantly recognisable set of traits, he’s a cinephile’s filmmaker. But by adopting the tricks of Hitchcock and Reed, Petzold is at least primed for a crossover. Yet, on the more unsettling end of that spectrum is just how aerodynamic the transposition of fascism and, more specifically, lives upended by the Nazi regime in 1940’s Europe, transposes so easily to even the most indeterminate of settings, both physical and temporal.
“Transit” is showing in UK cinemas 10 August 2019.
Director Christian Petzold
Writer Christian Petzold, based on a novel by Anna Seghers
Cinematographer Hans Fromm
Editor Bettina Böhler
Cast Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Godehard Giese, Lilien Batman
Duration 101 minutes