THE FILMS of writer-director Christian Petzold are haunted: by the specters of history, by revenants, by shadowy protagonists often in flight or exile. These phantom threads are stitched together to create supple narratives that recall earlier movies—Vertigo especially—or classic genres (noir, the woman’s picture) without being in thrall to them. Petzold, born in 1960 to parents who had recently emigrated from East to West Germany, revitalizes old templates to offer new perspectives on historical rifts and traumas.
That style is particularly pronounced in Transit (2018), his latest film, based on the World War II–set novel of the same name by the German writer Anna Seghers. The book, completed in 1942 and published in 1944, is narrated by an unnamed twenty-seven-year-old German man, an escapee from two concentration camps who has arrived in Marseille—where, owing to an administrative blunder, he assumes the identity of a deceased author called Weidel. With the dead man’s papers, the protagonist attempts to secure his passage from war-ravaged France to Mexico; much of his time in Marseille is spent among other refugees desperate to flee Europe, their fate tied up in the stupefying bureaucracy of consulates and embassies.
Petzold’s adaptation, the first of his films to be set entirely outside Germany, operates as an anti–period piece: The movie, which assigns the name Georg to the main character, retains many of the source text’s references to the Nazi occupation of France but takes place in an obviously present-day Marseille (Petzold shot Transit in the port city between May and July 2017); neither costumes nor locales are designed to mimic the World War II era. Though the movie largely adheres to the novel’s plot, some characters are radically altered by Petzold: In the film, the mother of a sickly boy whom Georg grows close to, for instance, is from the Maghreb, the North African region colonized by France, a country still unwilling to fully atone for its past crimes there. (In Seghers’s book, the woman plays a less significant role and is assumed to be European.) The labyrinthine, contradictory, and counterintuitive rules regarding emigration laid out in the novel also take on new resonance in Petzold’s movie, which subtly but no less acutely evokes the innumerable obstacles, dictated by the Dublin Regulation, facing migrants and asylum seekers in the EU today.
Transit continues Petzold’s oblique yet shrewd examinations of the upheavals of the twentieth century (particularly those in his home country) and their lingering effects in the twenty-first.
Transit continues Petzold’s oblique yet shrewd examinations of the upheavals of the twentieth century (particularly those in his home country) and their lingering effects in the twenty-first. Petzold, one of the founding members of the loose coalition of filmmakers known as the Berlin School, first evinced this strategy in Die innere Sicherheit (The State I Am In, 2000), a low-key thriller about a teenage girl and her parents lamming it through Europe. Only later in the movie do viewers learn, without signifiers like “RAF” or “Baader-Meinhof” ever being uttered, why this trio is on the run: Mom and Dad are veterans of an extreme-left cell of the 1970s. Yet their commitment to staging class revolution in Y2K Deutschland seems to incite only counterrebellion from their daughter, who longs for simpler pleasures, like a boyfriend and a fixed address.
Petzold cowrote The State I Am In with Harun Farocki, the auteur of superlative Marxist essay films, who was one of the filmmaker’s professors at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin and later became his frequent collaborator. (Petzold dedicates Transit to Farocki, who died in 2014.) Farocki’s influence on his former student may be most evident in Yella (2007), the final installment of Petzold’s “Ghosts” trilogy. The movie follows the title character (played by Nina Hoss)—an aspiring businesswoman who sees phantoms, and who may or may not be one herself—as she leaves her hometown in the former East Germany for a job in Hannover; Yella riffs equally on the American cult horror movie Carnival of Souls (1962) and Farocki’s Nothing Ventured (2004), a coolly observant documentary about Germany’s new class of cutthroat financiers. The theme of the brutalities of the free market in a country not even two decades into its reunification also drives Jerichow (2008). Set in the eponymous, impoverished hamlet of the erstwhile East, the film is a spare, smart reworking of James M. Cain’s paradigmatic (and frequently adapted) 1934 noir novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice; although it replicates the source’s love triangle, Jerichow is concerned less with the heat of bodies grinding against each other than with the spiking of class and cultural tensions as wads of euros exchange hands.
All of Petzold’s projects (including his three made-for-TV movies from the ’90s, his initial work following film school) through Jerichow were resolutely set in the present. But with Barbara (2012), Petzold for the first time set a film in the past—in 1980, in an unnamed province of the German Democratic Republic—embarking on what he has dubbed his “Love in Times of Oppressive Systems” trilogy, which has been completed by Phoenix (2014) and Transit. Barbara stars Hoss—a supernal performer who’s made six films to date with Petzold—in the title role as a physician from a prestigious clinic in East Berlin reassigned to a pediatric hospital in the sticks as punishment for applying for an exit visa from the GDR. Although its heroine is subject to intermittent Stasi searches, Barbara forgoes the spy-versus-spy gimmickry of other backward glances at the East’s secret-police regime (typified by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s fatuous Das Leben der Anderen [The Lives of Others] from 2006). Instead, the film probes a more nuanced topic: the costs of revealing and withholding—information, motives, feelings—in a surveillance state. In a nod to melodramas like Stella Dallas (1937), Barbara ends with an enormous sacrifice by its steely lead character, though without the sentimentality and self-abnegation common to the “women’s weepie.”
Phoenix, Petzold’s final collaboration with Farocki, stands as one of the boldest interventions in the Holocaust film, a genre so often befouled by the evils of banality. Loosely adapted from a 1961 French novel titled Le retour des cendres (The Return from the Ashes), Phoenix is also an audacious descendant of Vertigo, the Hitchcock masterwork about obsession and deranging memory that Petzold first evoked in Toter Mann (Something to Remind Me, 2001). Set in Berlin immediately after World War II, Phoenix follows the bizarre reunion of Nelly (Hoss)—a concentration-camp survivor who has undergone reconstructive facial surgery—with her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, also Hoss’s costar in Barbara). Using the name Esther, Nelly is unrecognizable to her spouse, who had presumed her dead and who has seemingly repressed his most unconscionable acts against her. He despotically remolds the woman he knows as Esther into Nelly with the hopes of cashing in on her inheritance. Fully compliant in this brutal masquerade, Nelly may appear to be the film’s most self-deluded character—until Phoenix’s astonishing final scene, an ingenious indictment of her husband’s, and, by extension, a nation’s, pathologies.
Just as innovative as Phoenix in its narrative gambits, Transit forms a diptych of sorts with its immediate predecessor. Both films respond to the barbarities of World War II—Phoenix more directly but Transit no less starkly in its two-gauge time frame of then and now. When a character in Petzold’s latest declares, “Avignon was just being cleansed, as they call it,” the gruesome statement signals both the atrocities taking place at the time Seghers was writing her novel and the recrudescence, in the past five years or so, of nationalism and xenophobia in the Schengen Area.
In a roundabout way, Transit also bears traces of the Hitchcock movie that’s been a lodestar for this German director. Petzold’s most recent film presents the verso of Vertigo, its gender inverse, as a woman compulsively searches for a man who is dead. That seeker is Marie (Paula Beer), the estranged wife of the deceased author whose identity Georg (Franz Rogowski) has assumed. Marie knows neither that her husband committed suicide in Paris nor that Georg has successfully fooled Marseille’s attachés and other officious midlevel functionaries into thinking he’s Weidel.
Her futile quest mirrors the efforts of all those in the film who wish to leave Marseille for safe havens—efforts thwarted by the dizzying illogic of bureaucracy in times of crisis. “I can only stay here if I can prove that I don’t want to stay?” Georg asks a hotel proprietress who demands some document or other. It’s the same sick riddle that refugees from the Global South have been forced to solve as they try to enter Europe—the intractable codes of which have succeeded only in creating more misery, more deaths, more ghosts.
Transit opens March 1 in New York and March 8 in Los Angeles, and will be released in other US cities later this month.
Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4Columns.