Christian Petzold’s latest film Transit—his third consecutive period piece, second successive literary adaptation, and first theatrical feature to not star Nina Hoss in quite some time—continues what might be described as the German director’s ongoing European project. It is telling that the title of his 2000 feature The State I Am In, after which last year’s New York retrospective of his work was named, suggests a filmmaker concerned with taking the pulse of a nation. Adapted from Anna Seghers’s 1942 novel of the same name, drawn from the writer’s experience of fleeing to Mexico during World War II, Transit completes Petzold’s self-dubbed “Love in Times of Oppressive Systems” trilogy, comprised of the 1980s spy-melodrama Barbara (2012) and his post-WWII Vertigo-facelift Phoenix (2014). From its first frame, though, one would be forgiven for echoing the enduring refrain of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)—for though Transit is nominally a period drama set in 1940s France, it’s one that makes no pains to accurate representation. What year is this?
Opening in Paris at the beginning of the German occupation, the film picks up on Georg (Franz Rogowski), a 27-year-old audio technician tasked with delivering a set of documents to Marie (Paula Beer), the wife of an author referred to only as Weidel. The writer, we soon learn, is dead—but only Georg knows this. Thereafter, Transit unfolds exclusively in Marseille, a seaport that Petzold limns with a kind of functional elegance—all sleek reflective surfaces and jarringly modern spaces, lit with burnished orange hues long before the city would have adopted the requisite sodium-vapor lamps. The action, such as it is, revolves around a few key locations: the Mexican consulate where Georg is mistaken for the writer (which allows him to apply for passage); the café where he later meets with Marie, who awaits her husband’s arrival, but has taken up with a doctor in the interim; and the apartment of Driss (Lilien Batman), a half-Algerian kid whose father died en route to Marseille and who now looks to Georg to fill this paternal vacancy. Mostly, though, there's the waiting—plus the fact the the freedom so longed for is embodied, rather perversely, in the cruise ships that mill about the city's port, which call to mind Jean-Luc Godard’s Film socialisme (2010) and that film's portrait of a neoliberal Europe adrift at sea. The ocean liner that Godard filmed on was the Costa Concordia, whose route was the western Mediterranean, including the port of Marseille. The vessel sank in 2012.
Petzold’s then-is-now gambit is not unprecedented: Chantal Akerman’s Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the ‘60s in Brussels (1994) drolly evokes a pre-May 1968 political moment within a then-contemporary cityscape, thereby delineating what had been gained or lost, or just gone unrealized in the time since. But with its modernist formal construction, conscious attention to film history (particularly an interest in genre templates), and leftist political critique, Transit bears the features associated—variously, contentiously—with the Berlin School, a designation taken from the German Academy of Film and Television Berlin (DFFB) where Petzold, Thomas Arslan, and Angela Schanelec matriculated in the 1990s. A 2006 Senses of Cinema article titled “The Berlin School — A Collage” (translated and republished from the Austrian film magazine kolik.film) attempted to trace the term’s context and history, while a 2010 postscript looked at its value in describing a shared film-political perspective between a loose network of directors, as well as its limitations in capturing their aesthetic divergences. (Schanelec, at least, seems to have set out for more alien, unclassifiable territories than her colleagues.) When the latter was written, the Berlin School had accrued modest, though not decisive levels of recognition. But with the relatively recent release of Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (2016)—swiftly followed by Valeska Grisebach’s Western (2017), Petzold’s Transit (2018), and Ulrich Köhler’s In My Room (2018)—the Berlin School seems to have finally broken out.
Whatever one might think of the individual filmmakers associated with the Berlin School, the designation carries an unquestionable whiff of academicism, which skeptics have been quick to use against the works in question—and not entirely without reason. For detractors, these films are bound by equivocating intellectualism, predigested, evincing an interest in demotic genre forms, but containing none of their raw pungency. (Though in the case of the above-mentioned, such charges don't quite account for Ade's touches of genuine madness, Grisebach's feel for the elemental, and Köhler’s sense of wonderment.) And though the relative ease or difficulty in writing about a work of art should not, in itself, be a marker of value, these films might raise suspicion for their sheer readability and drum-tight construction. Perfectly composed and thought-through, they seem at once to invite critical commentary and, paradoxically, make one feel that such engagement is rather beside the point.
Such assessments are, to me, apposite to both Barbara and Phoenix, in which Petzold’s consummate formal elegance constrains the potential resonances of the stories in question. With Transit, the issue might seem to be compounded. (Armed just with basic knowledge of its source material and defining formal gambit, one could easily furnish a mid-length review.) In illustrating the fundamental paradox of the transit visa—that to stay in a country, one must prove that one intends to leave—Transit defines itself through studied oppositions: by delineating the horizontal space of physical distance and the vertical space of time; by melding rigorous realism (with a particular attention to labor, hence the procedural scene of Georg fixing a transistor radio) and uncanny, somnambulistic rupture; and by evoking a melodrama while sculpting around its emotional valence. Historical repetition; a dialectical movement between past and present; the post-WWII diaspora and the current refugee crisis—these are the concerns that plainly reverberate through Petzold’s latest.
And yet, such characterizations don’t account for the heady, scintillating experience of actually viewing the thing. As it covers terrain that’s particularly, if not exclusively intellectual, Transit sets the mind aflame. (A typically generative instance: Georg's anachronistic reference to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead , which one could take as a critique of neoliberalism or late capitalism, an evocation of the characters’ zombified movements through the port city, or as a corporeal counterpoint to the film's conceptual ghost story.) But for all of its clear, “readable” lines of thought—which one might ascribe to the enduring influence of the late Harun Farocki, Petzold's closest DFFB collaborator to whom the film is dedicated—its movements eventually reach a rather knotty endpoint. So if Transit stands, in my estimation, as the most successful of the trilogy, this is because its incessant, destabilizing ruptures—which induce a temporal, rather than spatial vertigo—finally push beyond its “oppressive” system; or, at least, capture an aching, sorrowful desire to do so.
In a key departure from the novel, whose clear model is Franz Kafka’s The Castle, Transit shifts its narration from Seghers’ unnamed subject to, we later learn, a character of no consequence at all: the bartender at the café where Georg and Marie often find themselves amidst the film's roundelay of missed connections and phantom movements. Though at first glance redundant, seeming to verbalize what we already see, the narration pushes further, as if positing parallel stories and possible worlds that remain just on the porous borders of reality. Petzold’s precise framings emphasize the self-sufficiency of any given location, seen most clearly during Georg’s escape from Paris, with the stark image of a truck hold rendered in monochrome shades of blue (a color that, as in Barbara, is linked to escape). But because Transit at all points feels haunted by portentous prolepsis, the frame is further overlaid with an image of shifting train tracks—literal lines of flight that one would do well to take, lest one fall into the film's sundry temporal recesses.
As we are reminded, Marseille is a port city, so as Seghers' nameless protagonist lingers by the docks, he ruminates on “the remnants of crushed armies, escaped slaves, human hordes who had been chased from all the countries of the earth, and having at last reached the sea, boarded ships in order to discover new lands from which they would again be driven; forever running from one death to another.” This is, explicitly, a raconteur’s domain, where marauders and adventurers and refugees and survivors swap stories in an attempt to stave off debilitating boredom, the particular anguish of just waiting around for the next ship to weigh anchor. In a scene at the Mexican consulate, a jaded woman monologues—in Georg’s presence, but to no one in particular—about the presumed states and fates of others suspended in a similar limbo. The passage may obliquely recall a sequence in the Berlin Wall-era time capsule Wings of Desire (1987), where the camera floats across a subway train surveying various weary faces, revealing their untold worries and hopes and pains. But the differences are stark, for there are no angels here, no languid, graceful movements—only static, enclosed frames, and the banal hell of a waiting room.
If the primary impression created by Seghers’ novel is of Kafkaesque bureaucracy, Petzold’s adaptation evokes an almost Lynchian liminality. One would be remiss to overstate the connection between the two directors, hailing as they do from different generations and filmmaking traditions—but watching Georg and Marie move along their intersecting, but never synchronous orbits, through doors rhythmically opening and closing, with offers accepted, refused, or just allowed to expire, one might get a hint of Lost Highway’s Möbius-strip trajectory or Inland Empire’s uncanny sensation of endless free-fall. And, at bottom, is the plight of the refugee not the same as that of Twin Peaks, in which the home becomes something malevolent, pernicious, far beyond inhospitable? (While we’re on the matter, it’s worth mentioning that Petzold’s TV movie Dreileben: Beats Being Dead contains one of the most effective jump scares since the diner in Mulholland Dr.) Of course, there’s also the omnipresent shadow of Vertigo (1958), crucial to Lynch's practice, and which, though not as present here as it is in Phoenix, manifests in Georg’s dual role as deceiver and savior, as a man merely running from one death to the next.
Transit eventually builds to a final image of piercing expectation: the fundamental longing of one for another. But Petzold makes no attempt to conceal the fact that this is a tale told to us—perhaps for the first time, likely not for the last—by a mere observer. This tragedy of searching and waiting—the "shifting phantasmagoria" of actual experience, as Joan Didion would put it—though once a matter of life and death, is now, one might say, just a stranger’s dream. (Beats being dead, perhaps, but has anyone asked Laura Palmer that?) Of her transit to Mexico, Seghers reportedly said that she felt "as though I had been dead a year." But of course, she didn't die; she crossed the Atlantic and completed her novel—and who knows what tales she heard along the way? This is history, repeated. This is a story, repeated. This is a story. Knowing this, how then shall we live?