Christian Petzold (b. 1960) is arguably the most visible member, in the international film market, of what has been termed the ‘Berlin School’ of writer-directors. This is a loose term for a group of filmmakers, some of whom studied in Berlin and others in different German-speaking film schools. Most of the films from the school might be considered ‘non-commercial’, often made with TV money and broadcast by German PSB channels. As well as Petzold, the other members of the group discussed on this blog include Thomas Arslan, Angela Schanalec and Valeska Grisebach. Petzold with four and Grisebach with two are the only ones to get UK cinema releases. Otherwise the school is known via festival screenings.
The Berlin School films do not adhere to a manifesto or to specific styles but they are generally low-budget and focused on relationships. However, Petzold’s films have made distinctive movements into genre territory and the last two have featured period drama in Barbara (2012) and Phoenix (2014). He has also been associated with a star actor – Nina Hoss has appeared in five of his films. Like others from the actual Berlin School (dffb), Petzold had a strong relationship with the filmmaker and teacher Harun Farocki and they were both interested in the 1944 novel Transit by Anna Seghers. Petzold’s film adaptation of that novel is dedicated to the memory of Farocki who died in 2014.
Seghers was a Jewish writer who managed to leave Germany for Paris in 1934 and, after the invasion of Northern France in 1940, to get a passage to Mexico via Marseille. The novel uses that experience to explore the problems faced by refugees in Marseille in their desperate attempts to leave. After the war, Seghers returned to Berlin and eventually settled in the GDR. She became known as a writer exploring the moral experience of the Second World War.
Petzold decided to reverse his original decision to make an adaptation of Transit as a period film. Instead he shot ‘on the street’ in contemporary France but kept the novel’s narrative events and characters, playing down the specific historical references and allowing similar present-day concerns to seep in. The characters themselves seem to exist in a kind of timeless bubble. While events around them are contemporary, they don’t use mobile phones and their costumes are simple and classic rather than ‘modern and fashionable’. In a terrific opening sequence we meet Georg (Franz Rogowski), a German in Paris with a friend in a bar. Georg is given some papers and charged with delivering them to a local hotel where a prominent German Jewish writer (who may also be a Communist) is hiding before leaving for Marseille and then Mexico. But the writer is already dead and Georg will find himself travelling to Marseille with the writer’s papers after avoiding the French police who are already starting a round-up of ‘undesirables’. We realise that France is about to be occupied and that Georg and Germans like him have to leave. In Marseille we will eventually learn more about Georg and follow him as he tries to use the papers to get a visa and a passage to Mexico via the US. I don’t want to spoil the narrative but it is important to know that the dead writer’s wife Marie (Paula Beer) is also in Marseille, looking for her husband – and we know that she and Georg must meet eventually.
This is the kind of film which if approached ‘cold’ with no background information is likely to lead to bewilderment. It needs a second viewing or some research. Jonathan Romney interviews Petzold in Sight and Sound (September 2019) and there are Press Notes with more material (I found then on the website of Music Box, the US distributor). Perhaps the way in is to think of similar narratives and associated genres. Seghers is said to have been inspired by Kafka and at least one reviewer has summarised Transit as “Casablanca re-written by Kafka”. Romney suggests Albert Camus and cites La Peste (The Plague 1947) set in Oran, Algeria. I can see that the sunny dusty streets of Marseille do suggest the enervating heat of Spain, Portugal and the Maghreb, all locales where ‘disappearing’ suddenly seems a possibility. In Petzold’s narrative there are no airline services and the Spain and Portugal of the 1940s were both fascist-controlled even when neutral. Port cities are always settings for migration and exile issues. I was reminded of the films of Aki Kaurismäki and of Marcel Carné’s Le Quai des brumes (1938) in which Jean Gabin is an army deserter trying to get a boat to Venezuela from Le Havre.
‘Transit’ is an interesting title since in English the term has two slightly different meanings. While it refers to the movement of goods or people between two places, it is also used to describe the ‘condition’ of being ‘in transit’ – between two places with no fixed status. In the Press Notes, Petzold discusses these kinds of meanings at some length. He refers to the German term Geschichtsstille, literally translated as “history standing still’. Petzold found the term in the writings of another 1940s refugee, Georg K. Glaser, also a German Jew. Glaser and Seghers experienced the same sense of loss and displacement but they seem to have ‘come out of it’ in slightly different ways. I find all of this quite fascinating but it’s difficult to follow Petzold’s ideas and to trace how he has worked them through in the film narrative. I’ll try and just give a few examples here and leave some other ideas until I can see the film again.
Watching the film before I was aware of the idea of Geschichtsstille, I thought about the idea of ‘limbo’ and of being in a world where a small group of characters exist in very tight emotional relationships but with few options about how to act or to move forward. Meanwhile, the world around them changes. One way to represent this is to provide the narrative with a separate ‘observing’ narrator. Such narration via voiceover is often not popular with contemporary cinema audiences, though it doesn’t bother me. Petzold’s idea is to include some narration but to eventually reveal that it comes from a character in the film narrative. Allied to this is the writer’s manuscript that Georg found in Paris and which seems to offer him the possibility of being someone else, to be like an actor in another narrative, which he must be in order to ‘become’ the writer who hopes to get a visa. The Kafkaesque state in which Georg and Marie and a third German refugee character find themselves is neatly summed up in a scene when Georg is looking for a hotel room in Marseiile and the owner says that he must have a transit visa to prove that he is leaving France in order to be granted permission to stay in the hotel.
Transit is a mesmeric narrative and much depends on the playing of the two leads, both of whom are excellent. Franz Rogowski as Georg may be best known in the UK as one of the young men in Victoria (Germany 2015) but more recently he was the lead in the intriguing In the Aisles (Germany 2018). I’ve already swooned over Paula Beer in discussing the François Ozon film Frantz (France-Germany 2016). What makes her performance so unnerving in Transit is that she so much resembles Nina Hoss, not facially perhaps but her hair, the way she wears the classic 1940s clothes and sometimes the way she moves reminded me of Hoss in Yella, Barbara and Phoenix. Not that she offers an imitation of Nina Hoss but these resemblances add to the sense of ‘other worldness’. There is also a narrative twist to Marie’s story that recalls Yella. The film is shot in CinemaScope ratio by Hans Fromm, Petzold’s regular DoP. Petzold explains:
It was important to me that the spaces we were working in allowed for a choreography where the characters not only communicate with each other through dialogue. Instead, their presence, their movements, and the distances they maintain from each other, tell so much more than them constantly talking ever could. CinemaScope gives you that space to move in, and it allowed us to do long takes and follow the actors’ choreography.
I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of everything that Transit offers. I haven’t mentioned the uncanny ways in which the contemporary refugee issues in Europe begin to creep into the film and how Petzold uses the Maghrebi presence in Marseille as a factor in the narrative. This will be one of my films of the year and I’m now enthused to review the previous Petzold films I’ve managed to accumulate.