The State I Am In is the first of Christian Petzold’s cinema features and has also been identified as the first film of a trilogy which includes Gespenster (Ghosts, 2005) and Yella (2007). The film was written by Petzold and his former film school tutor Harun Faroki, who co-wrote five of Petzold’s features. The film’s story is very similar to that of the Sidney Lumet film Running on Empty (US 1988) but with the location changed to Europe. IMDb notes that the script by Naomi Foner for Running On Empty is not mentioned in the credits for The State I Am In.
The narrative begins in the Algarve where teenager Jeanne is living in an apartment block by the sea with her parents. The family have been ‘on the run’ since before Jeanne was born, wanted by the German Police and presumably through Interpol by other police forces across Europe. They have had to move several times and Jeanne is getting tired of the constant upheaval and the lack of opportunity to make long-term friends. She meets Heinrich, a young German, but before they can spend much time together, she and her parents must move again. This time the move is more urgent and the situation more desperate. They are forced to return to Germany to seek out old contacts in the hope of funding a final escape to Brazil.
The narrative combines elements of the thriller genre repertoire and the fugitives on the run with the youth picture/’coming of age’ story of Jeanne and Heinrich (who she will meet again in the familiar Petzold territory of the Elbe River area). We never discover what the parents, Clara and Hans actually did that caused them to flee. They are used to defending themselves and carrying a weapon and they are clearly well-educated and disciplined so they do appear to be political activists rather than criminals. Jeanne is experiencing an adolescence that is becoming frustrating since she is missing friendships and the chance to explore the pleasures of consumer capitalism – new clothes and music in particular. She must in a sense ‘work’ for her parents, shopping and running other errands to protect their identities. In return she is home-schooled. Ironically Jeanne will become a petty criminal because she can only acquire new clothes and CDs by shoplifting. This in turn increases her frustration.
I haven’t seen Gespenster, but placing Yella alongside The State I Am In does make sense. In both films a young(ish) German woman is at the centre of a narrative which seems to be allegorical with the woman representing a Germany that is struggling to find a new identity. In Yella, the struggle is about the inequalities of East and West after re-unification. In The State I Am In it is a struggle to get past the political divisions of the 1970s to 1990s in which various left organisations attacked the institutions of the West German state (and its personnel) through direct action. The state responded with anti-communist measures against leftist activists, instigating surveillance and reviving the Berufsverbot, an employment ban for public service posts first introduced in the 1930s. The only direct reference in the film is when Jeanne sneaks into a school screening of the Alan Resnais documentary Night and Fog (France 1956) about the Nazi death camps. The left action groups of the 1970s accused the West German government of a failure to confront the history of fascism in Germany.
The 1970s politics was also about the Vietnam War and the American military presence in Germany (the British and French military presence was seemingly less provocative?). The political discourses in West Germany were evident in some of the ‘New German Cinema’ films of the 1970s. Petzold doesn’t make obvious references to political struggles but he does use American culture in Germany as one of the elements that inspires Jeanne. The film begins with a scene in which Jeanne selects a song on a jukebox in a seaside café, Tim Hardin’s 1966 song ‘How Can We Hang On to a Dream’. This plaintive song might be read as a commentary on the film itself in the sense of a couple who try to keep their political convictions intact. The same song plays, non-diegetically, over the final credits. It’s earlier appearance is the background to Heinrich coming over to bum a cigarette off Jeanne in the café. He turns out to be a surfer with a poster for The Endless Summer (US 1965), the cult surfing documentary, in his room. He tells Jeanne that he is obsessed with Brian Wilson, the creative leader of The Beach Boys. I couldn’t help thinking of the early Wim Wenders movies from New German Cinema in which many characters play American music.
When Petzold made The State I Am In he had already completed some short films and two features made for TV. For his début cinema feature he had the support of his regular collaborators such as DoP Hans Fromm, film editor Bettina Böhler and music composer Stefan Will who have generally stayed with him over his career. The State I Am In doesn’t have the lustre of the recent films such as Undine (2020) but its pared down style matches the feel of its narrative. Petzold is well-served by his trio of lead actors with Julia Hummer as Jeanne, Barbara Auer as Clara and Richy Müller as Hans. The supporting roles, especially Bilge Bingul as Heinrich, are also strong. I enjoyed the film and I’m pleased to have seen it in the current MUBI season of Petzold films. I did see the Sidney Lumet film back in 1988 but I can’t remember it well enough to make a comparison. I just remember that it was River Phoenix who played the slightly older teenager.
Here is the opening of the film:
Christian Petzold is one of our favourite directors and Undine is a film that we couldn’t miss. It is being streamed by several platforms and I caught it on MUBI which is also offering a retrospective of Petzold’s earlier films. I was vaguely aware of the European myth and folktale/fairy tale about the water nymph Undine/Ondine, but I decided to leave my research until after I’d seen the film. I think now that perhaps I should have done the research first. On the other hand, my seeming struggle with the film narrative might simply be down to watching a streamer rather than sitting in a cinema watching the film on a big screen. Either way I still enjoyed the film and I will think about watching it again soon.
Undine is love story, a fantasy and a form of social commentary/historiography about Berlin. Its echoes in Petzold’s earlier work are most clearly there in Yella (2007) and also in Phoenix (2014) but there are also numerous references across European narratives more generally. Undine (Paula Beer) is a historian working as a freelance lecturer at a museum in Berlin. She delivers talks based on the dioramas of Berlin’s architecture at different periods in its history. We only hear snippets of her talks but that’s enough to learn something about the history of the city and especially its beginnings as a settlement built on a marsh. The modern city straddles the River Spree and much of it is given over to trees, parks and water. An eventful day sees Undine breaking up with her lover Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) and then meeting Christof (Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver who works maintaining underwater installations such as pipeworks etc. Christof and Undine rapidly fall in love but there is a lingering sense that Undine may not have finished with Johannes completely.
It’s difficult to discuss Undine without spoiling particular scenes which I have no desire to do, so I’ll limit myself to more general comments. The film has been generally well-received by critics but, even more than some earlier Petzold films, it poses problems for audiences. What is it ‘about’ and how should we approach a reading? My feeling is that it is definitely a love story and it is also saying something about history, the ‘layering’ of historical events and their changing interpretations over time. Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of films like this is the blending of a form of realist filmmaking with elements of fantasy in the narrative. Some audiences embrace this eagerly, others find it too difficult and it often becomes a reason to dismiss films. It is also something which spills over into the distinction between ideas about art cinema and commercial genre cinema. A good, relatively recent, example of a film which presents similar problems might be Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (US 2017). OK, that film won 4 Oscars as a more obvious fantasy, but it represents an attempt to use fantasy as a vehicle to explore culture and social commentary. Petzold has been classified as part of the ‘Berlin School’ of German directors, a loose grouping that refers to directors who trained in Berlin in the 1990s and became recognised in the international art and festival film market from the 2000s on wards. One shared feature of the films of several of the directors is a depiction of life in contemporary Germany, often in Berlin itself (e.g. in some of the films of Angela Shanelec). Petzold constructs narratives presented in realist terms, but often drawing on intertextual references to other films, literature or historical events or periods. Yella concerns a young woman from former East Germany who travels to the West, becoming involved with the airless world of advanced capitalism – but is she really there, is she what she seems? I was reminded in that film of the introduction of ghosts in Japanese cinema which began to appear in realist environments in J-horror films of the late 1990s and early 2000s. In Phoenix, Petzold drew inspiration from a French novel that first became a British film. He transferred the narrative to a setting in the immediate post-war rubble of Berlin, thus perhaps stressing the generic ‘rubble-film’ as his realist base for what is a preposterous but highly engaging story.
After thinking about Undine for a long time, and reading many reviews, I’ve finally managed to get a handle on my own reading of the film. The myth of the nymph is present across many cultures and is probably most familiar via the mermaid or in the Celtic/Nordic form of the ‘selkie’ (seal-woman). The German folk tale of Undine appears to derive first from the work of the Swiss philosopher Paracelsus and was then formulated as a fairy tale novella in 1811 by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué as an example of German romanticism. In 1811 Berlin was the capital of Prussia – previously it had been the capital of Brandenburg. After 1871 it became the capital of Germany with the founding of the nation state. The layering of Berlin’s identities is represented in the museum which offers the dioramas of Berlin’s building phases described in her lectures by Undine. Petzold has been particularly scathing about the development of contemporary Berlin which attempts to sterilise the past even while presenting this history. A few years ago this might have been discussed as an an example of postmodernism. The romanticism of the Undine myth then becomes a disruptive force that constantly reminds us of the past. It also powers the love between Undine and Christof which negates the sterility of the recent urban development. It is this tension which makes the narrative so fascinating for me.
But I’m also bowled over by the romance itself. Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski are terrific together, even more so than in Transit (2018). I’ve been impressed with Rogowski since I saw him in his lead role In the Aisles (2018). Paula Beer blew me away with her performance in Frantz (2016) by François Ozon. As Undine she transforms herself again, making the most of her role as a freelance historian. She seems to be both efficient and organised but also hinting that she has come from ‘another place’ – and is about to go back there. As a reviewer remarked, her appearance in a white blouse and dark skirt and shoes is formal in the museum but her loose hair and slight dishevelment also indicates her fluidity. She won Best Actress when Undine screened at the Berlinale in 2020. I was intrigued to read that Beer was recommended to Petzold by Nina Hoss who featured in six of Petzold’s previous films. Petzold has hinted that one day Hoss and Beer might appear together. That would certainly be worth seeing. Petzold has spoken a great deal about Undine and here’s a quote from a Cineuropa interview:
Undine made me think of the relationship between directors and main actresses as well as the one between muses and artists. Isn’t it a sort of perpetual betrayed love for all the Undines of this world? Don’t men always dominate everything? It’s not that Undine wins in the story; she has to go back in the water and wait for the next man to come along. She exists only through men, and that is a horrible curse. Our story aims to explore an Undine who is struggling against this. Then along comes a man, a proletarian, an industrial diver, who interferes with the curse. He is not suspicious; he’s innocent and for the first time seems to see her primarily without any sexual desire and without wanting to dominate her. This is new for her, and a path to a new world seems possible.
I hope all these attempts to read the film don’t put you off. Undine is one of the best films I’ve seen since the lockdown began. It requires ‘work’ but it’s very much worth the effort. It is available to buy or rent from many outlets.
In this clip from the film we get a subtle reference to the underlying theme to the film and we experience the moment when Undine is with her new lover and sees her old lover:
Christian Petzold’s new film Undine is due for release in the UK in the next few weeks. In the meantime, MUBI have announced a Petzold season and the first title that has popped up is this film from 2008. I actually bought the DVD of this title from Germany a few years ago but, as is often the case, I didn’t have time to watch it when it arrived so this was a real treat with the knowledge that whatever happened I could finish it this time round. We are big Petzold fans on this blog and possibly even bigger Nina Hoss fans. She stars in this alongside Benno Fürmann who I remember from an early Thomas Tykwer film The Princess and the Warrior (Germany 2000).
In Jerichow Fürmann is Thomas, who has recently left the Germany army with a dishonourable discharge after a stint in Afghanistan. He has returned to his mother’s house in Jerichow, a scattered community along the Eastern bank of the River Elbe in the East of Germany. His mother has just died and after an altercation with a gangster acquaintance he finds himself penniless. But soon he gets a job with Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a retail entrepreneur who runs a chain of local snack bars and, having lost his licence, needs a driver. Nina Hoss plays his wife Laura. Thomas quickly spots that Laura is abused and eager for a new man. At this point, most critics make a reference to James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice first published in 1934 and filmed at least four times in direct adaptations.
I thoroughly enjoyed the film and I find the few online reviews rather baffling. Christian Petzold had already emerged as one of the first of the so-called ‘Berlin School’ to get wider recognition outside Germany and this film played in competition at Venice in 2008. Petzold had already achieved a profile outside Germany with Yella (2007) which also starred Nina Hoss and explored capitalism in the new Germany (i.e. from the perspective of East Germans). Prior to that Nina Hoss and Benno Fürmann had been paired in Petzold’s Wolfsburg (2003) which I haven’t managed to find yet.
Part of the problem for critics, especially in North America I think, is the temptation to make the James M. Cain inspiration more important than it is. The context for the triangular relationship is not the Great Depression of the 1930s but East Germany less than 20 years after re-unification. In addition, Ali is an important character as a Turkish entrepreneur whose chain of snack bars includes some run by other migrants. Ali is a complex character. Some readings suggest he is named in reference to the character in Fassbinder’s film Fear Eats the Soul (1974) but that film takes place in the early 1970s in West Germany, in a period when Turks in Germany were just beginning to think about what would happen after the Gastarbeiter scheme ended in 1973. (And Fassbinder’s Ali is Moroccan, not Turkish). Perhaps Ali had been brought to West Germany as a child in 1973/4? Though Petzold gives us some background to Ali’s plans (to return to Turkey, buying a house in the Taurus Mountains), he doesn’t develop this as Turkish-German directors such as Fatih Akin might do. (I note from a Senses of Cinema essay on Petzold that he deliberately attempted to respond to the Gastarbeiter films in Jerichow – but I don’t know which films these might be.) The focus in Jerichow is on the economic impact of reunification on East Germany. The location of Jerichow is significant in that the Elbe was earlier part of the border between West and East Germany. (The filming was actually carried out in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern nearer the Baltic Sea coast.)
Jerichow offers an almost procedural study of the snackbar business. Ali soon susses out that Thomas has the intelligence and the skills (including hand to hand fighting) to quickly learn the business and take over while Ali briefly visits Turkey. Ali explains that many of the operators of the snack bars attempt to pocket small amounts of money which over time can mean that he loses a substantial sum. On occasions Ali terminates their contracts and gets someone else to take over. Ali then takes Thomas to a supplier where they spy on Laura. Is she also ‘on the take’ or is she having an affair? I don’t want to spoil more of the plot but it is important to note that Laura’s marriage to Ali is about money and at one point she rejects Thomas with the cry that nothing is about love, it’s all about money. We get only a little background on Laura and nothing about Thomas apart from the intimation that he had an East German childhood. Ali presumably grew up in West Germany and I’m not sure about Laura. Would the German audience notice things I’ve missed?
Several reviews suggest that Laura and Thomas have a very cold relationship. It’s complicated because their sexual attraction is obvious but Laura must be affected by Ali’s abuse. At one point Ali pushes the two of them together to dance, almost as if he is showing off Laura to Thomas. Rather than the film noir about a doomed man who would be the Thomas character in the earlier adaptations, Petzold’s film is a character-driven acting tour de force in which money underpins the lives of all three characters. The ending of the narrative moves further away from the Cain novel. It makes more sense to view the film alongside Yella than to think about it as an adaptation. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more interest in the UK in looking at Petzold’s output since his first fiction feature in 2000. Nine films in 20 years would make a good season and Nina Hoss appears in five. She is also due more exposure. I should also add that Jerichow features several important collaborators who have been with Petzold on many of his features including cinematographer Hans Fromm, editor Bettina Böhler and music composer Stefan Will. There is more to say about this film and I hope to return to it at some point.
Phoenix, Brad Prager, German Film Classics: Camden House 2019, ISBN 9781640140387, £12.99, 88pp, 40 colour illus
My first reaction on reading this title was to wonder if a film can become a ‘film classic’ after only five years. Not that this observation worried me much since there are at least three blog entries on the film on this blog. I reviewed the film when it appeared at the London Film Festival, and both Keith Withall and Rona Murray discussed the film on its release. There is little doubt that Christian Petzold is the most successful of the so-called ‘Berlin School’ of contemporary German filmmakers. It is his films that are selected for international festivals and which tend to receive releases in film markets around the world – something increasingly difficult for many European auteurs these days. Most of Petzold’s successful films have seen him working with Nina Hoss as his leading player and Phoenix is the film on which they last worked together.
It might be worth offering a brief note about Phoenix first as this guide sticks very close to the text and assumes familiarity with the film. Nina Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, who we first see with her head swathed in bandages being driven by her friend Lene through an American checkpoint on her way back to Berlin in September 1945. Later we will learn that Nelly was a well-known singer before the war, but her Jewish heritage meant she was taken to Auschwitz. Somehow she escaped, but was shot in the face. Lene is driving her to meet a plastic surgeon who will re-construct her face. Lene then hopes that Nelly will accompany her to Palestine. However, Nelly hopes to find her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) and when she is recovered she begins a search. ‘Phoenix’ is the name of a nightclub attracting Americans in Berlin. The film is loosely adapted from a novel by Hubert Monteilhet, Return to the Ashes (1961), which sets the narrative in France. J. Lee Thompson made an English language film adaptation in 1965 featuring Ingrid Thulin and Maximilian Schell.
Brad Prager is Professor of German and Film Studies at the University of Missouri and he opens his guide by reminding us that Petzold co-wrote Phoenix with his old friend and mentor Harun Farocki. It was Farocki who suggested that the opening shots of the film should recall Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film The Killers [from the Hemingway short story] in which two contract killers are in a car at night searching for a man. Prager refers to Petzold’s comment about Siodmak as a Jewish German migrant in Hollywood, having fled the Nazis in the early 1930s. Siodmak carried with him that sense of being a persecuted exile when he returned to Germany after the war and Petzold sees Nelly as experiencing the same kind of feeling. Siodmak was one of the German directors identified as developing Hollywood films noirs and Petzold has said that film noir was the genre he thought about most in his preparation. He suggests that just as Fassbinder went back to the films of Douglas Sirk when he made his melodramas such as Fear Eats the Soul (1974), he, Petzold needed to go back to the films noirs of the 1940s and to directors such as Siodmak.
Prager offers us a very close reading of the film which I certainly found illuminating, especially in terms of the connections he finds to wider examples of German culture and particularly German Jewish culture. This means he explores similar films made both about 1945 and made in the immediate few months after the war and tracks the links to Jewish figures such as Kurt Weil, whose song ‘Speak Low’ plays a significant role in the film. As well as Robert Siodmak, he also refers to his screenwriter brother Curt/Kurt and to the Central European Jewish actor Peter Lorre. Prager’s first task is to demonstrate to us that Nelly experiences a a strong sense of dislocation in these first few months of what is a period of ‘limbo’ for German identity. Germany at this point simply doesn’t exist – it is an occupied territory. Nelly wants to re-discover her own German identity and her husband will fail to recognise her even though her new face will not be that different – it is more that he is incapable of seeing her. I know something about this period in Berlin but I learned a great deal more from Prager’s analysis. The real question, however, is who is the target readership for this guide?
I suspect that the intended readership is German studies students taking a film option. There are several other study guide series which deal with a specific ‘National Cinema’ through individual texts on key films. Readers need a certain investment in that National Cinema to get the most from the guides. The downside is that such guides don’t always suit the more general Film Studies student. One missing element for me was a sense of the German cinema audience. Checking the Lumière Database for European films I discovered that Phoenix had a smaller audience overall than Barbara (2012), the previous film by Petzold featuring both Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld. Not only did Phoenix have little more than half the audience of the previous film (530,000 across Europe) but the biggest audience was in France. Barbara, set in East Germany in the 1980s, attracted 1.05 million admissions across Europe and did, just, attract a larger audience in Germany. Prager does perhaps suggest reasons why this might be the case, but I don’t think he addresses what it means for German Cinema. But that’s the only disappointment for me in the analysis. What is the book like as a study guide?
As our other reviewers have pointed out, these are quite attractive guides in terms of presentation, especially since they use digital screengrabs nicely presented in colour. The A5 size is fairly standard for these little guides. In this case the text is presented in an attractive font, but the pages have small margins and the text is fully justified. There are no line spaces between paragraphs and the entire guide is divided into just four sections, corresponding to the linear progress of the narrative of the film. Each section is separated by just a couple of line spaces (rather than a new page). The overall effect is of a solid block of 80 pages of text enlivened only by the illustrations (which thankfully are used relatively frequently). All of this does make the text feel less accessible than it should be. Worse, however, is that there is no index as such, but instead seven pages of endnotes in lieu and a page of credits. The guide is printed on good quality paper, but these seeming cost-saving features rather undercut the overall quality appeal.
Brad Prager is an expert guide having written widely on German cinema and on that basis I would recommend this guide, but I hope Camden House re-consider their design for the series.
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.
Christian Petzold is no stranger to dealing with the idea of ghosts. Even though this film differs significantly from his earliest films, and forms part of the recent ones which have dealt with aspects of Germany history very much in the vein of the vergangenheitsbewaltigung tradition, there are resonances with his Ghost trilogy which gained him such International visibility as one of the Berlin School of filmmakers. These were directors, such as Petzold, Christoph Hochhäusler (Unter dir die Städt reviewed here), Thomas Arslan (an interview from 2011 here) and Angela Schanelec ( a trailer for Orly (2011) here). A disparate group but who all looked forward towards and at a modern Germany and the challenges faced in the new constitution of Europe. Thus, the first feature in the trilogy Die Innere Sicherheit (The State I’m In) dealt with what life was like as the daughter of two ex-terrorists (implicitly from something like the Red Army Faction) constantly on the run and never allowed to settle or make relationships. Similarly, Gespenster (Ghosts) cast Julia Hummer as a young, rootless girl trying to survive in Berlin. In Yella, Nina Hoss gives an eerie performance as a woman trying to move from the economically-deprived East to the more affluent West. Without giving any of the details of these plots away, Petzold’s characters definitively experience what it is like to be ghosts within the new economic Europe and to be a shadow within your own life. Watching Hoss play the role of Nelly in Phoenix, returning to her old life from the camps, was a further revelation of this theme with melodramatic intensity. Nelly is a ghost in her own life, unrecognised by her own husband and forced to act as her own doppelganger. All the unsettling, psychological associations having a double are at play here as in other such narratives and a scene in the hospital where Nelly is undergoing facial surgery made direct visual reference to it. Whilst Nelly as a shadow is a cultural metaphor, Hoss captures the emotional fragility so naturalistically that her performance protects the film from being schematic or overly symbolic. It works, as Keith and Roy have said, perfectly on a thematic level. It expresses exactly what might have been the emotional dislocation of returning from such an experience to attempt to take up your old life and relationships. And that the ending works is testament to the emotional conviction in the playing – from Hoss and Zehrfeld but, importantly, also from Nina Kunzendorf who offered such a convincing protective warmth and love – and a different response to circumstances – as Nelly’s devoted Jewish friend. The ending of the film, as Keith and Roy say, is incredibly moving, retaining an emotional ambiguity whilst being so satisfying. It generally reached back, for me, to Fassbinder in a way I haven’t know Petzold do so much before especially the post-war relationship in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979). Weren’t the nightclub scenes quite parodic – with an uncomfortable sense of victors moving in to take the place of Nazis?
Some reviews have talked about Petzold employing naturalism. I tend not to agree. Petzold uses his landscapes and his characters to create parables and to explore moral issues quite overtly and schematically. His style is better described as restrained and resists visual or aural excess but it does not lack elements of fantasy or melodrama. He often relies on the controlled intensity of actors such as Hoss or underplaying in performance in very extreme, narrative circumstances (as happens in Barbara (2012) or Jerichow (2008)). Part of what is fascinating about his work for me is this exploration of how to marry these disparate kinds of styles of expression. His collaboration with Harun Farocki – the great social documentarian – goes back to his film school days where Farocki taught him. Farocki was an inspirational documentarian on social issues as they related to the modern economic world. In returning to themes of the post-war era, crafting what some see as very conventional dramas for an international market (and therefore see Petzold as reneging on some of his principles) do these two collaborators suggest there is unfinished business there that can no longer be resisted?