* * * * (out of five)
Thanks to the recommendation of a trusty friend, I recently went down the rabbit hole with German writer / director Christian Petzold, watching seven of his films in preparation for his latest, Transit, opening in Australia on April 11th. If you have the chance I’d recommend it; if you don’t have the luxury of a critic’s schedule, you would do well simply to watch Barbara (2012) and Phoenix (2014), which form a thematic trilogy with this new film.
Petzold’s films are rigorously intellectual social thrillers based around extremely well defined characters and relatable situations, even as they analyze, interpret and ruthlessly examine modern Germany in the shadow of its past. In this, he is devoutly part, and a leading figure of, the “Berlin School”. They are films of emotional suspense: no one is racing to defuse a bomb or capture a criminal, but life changing decisions are made, often in the literal final minute of screen time, giving his films a strange and powerful jolt where most films provide calm closure. The effect is, if not unique to Petzold, certainly a signature element of his style, and leave the viewer energized, a bit giddy with excitement, and eager to see his next film: his oeuvre is absolutely ready-to-binge, especially as their average running time is a tight ninety minutes.
I guess I’m urging holding your own Petzold Festival, of whatever scope, before seeing Transit, because it’s definitely his most intellectually daring film, and I strongly suspect the more you’re tuned into his vibe, the more powerful this one will be for you on first watch. It’s tremendous, but it’s challenging; it requires focus and thought, and it absolutely builds on themes and motifs from throughout his body of work. (If you’re already a fan, you’ll know what I mean, and this one will already be on your calendar in bold red letters.)
Transit is the story, Casablanca-style, of many people, three in particular, stuck in an occupied French city, waiting for Transit Papers so they may flee to safety before their situation becomes life-threatening. But there’s a significant stylistic flourish, and it comes with a minor spoiler warning, although qualified thus: I think it’s better if you know it going in.
Here it is: Petzold shoots his screenplay, which is based on a German novel from 1944, in modern Marseilles, and sets it, essentially, timelessly. As a story, it’s absolutely taking place in Marseilles in 1942; visually, we are amongst the architecture of 2016, with the cars and the ships and the police amour, but without the mobile phones and the computers and the piercings. Indeed, the clothing could be from the 1940s, but you could wear it now. We are, perhaps, in 1942, 1984, and 2016, or perhaps we’re in all at once, and every other one between.
The result is profound. The reverberations with today – particularly with Trump’s America and his “border emergency” – are powerful but never emphatic; the greater effect is of a continuum, and that is where the film really is ecstatically original. Stage adaptations of Shakespeare do this kind of thing all the time, but when, if ever, did you see such a conceit in a movie? It’s outrageously audacious, and it absolutely works.
Petzold does not utilize his muse, actor Nina Hoss, here, and goes further, uncharacteristically featuring a male protagonist. Whether or not this is the reason, the film is not as emotionally engaging nor moving as much of his work. But is is staggeringly thought-provoking, dealing with immigration, war, racism, alienation, sacrifice, love, regret, denial, delusion, Germany, France, collaboration, justifiable criminality… I could go on, and on, as this is such a rich, dense piece of thematic art. And of course, it has this spectacularly bold conceit, of taking place outside of time as we know it, and thus more than anything is about time, and how relative it truly is.