Transit (2018): Casablanca in The Modern Day

Transit_(2018_film)Ever since the days of his James Cain-infused Jerichow, it’s been apparent German writer-director Christian Petzold is indebted to the written word when it comes to his brand of filmmaking. However, this time around he takes an oddly unnerving stroke of brilliance by setting his usual period piece in a version of the present, or is it a version of the present trapped in the past? Regardless, outside police cars — sounding eerily similar to Gestapo automobiles — rush through the streets while a pair of men have a hushed conference at a bar.

The scenario could nearly be mistaken for a dystopia if it weren’t for the cold hard facts the story was adapted from Anna Seghers eponymous wartime novel from 1944. What drives it forward is this compelling simplicity in the manner Petzold always seems so capable of. It’s part of the reason it’s so easy to be drawn into his films once you’re accustomed to the cadence.

The men bandy about talk of a letter and papers giving the hush-hush feel of a Casablanca, but Transit has the same restraint as Barbara (2012) and the wartime malaise of Phoenix (2014), albeit without the inimitable Nina Hoss. Georg (an unadorned yet haunting Franz Rogowski) is our protagonist, and we surmise soon enough he is on the lam from the authorities. Like many others, he has experienced the unknowable horrors of mechanized oppression.

He lives in a constant state of police-fueled paranoia brought on by the occupation, the details of which are kept purposefully murky. What we note are the resulting factors. The hotels are crammed with displaced folks trying to get out of the country, clinging to the faint wisp of hope in escaping to some far off place: the port of Marsellaise then Mexico or maybe America.

He is one of the displaced even as he’s aided in fleeing by cattle car and has a wounded colleague huddled next to him. It gives rise to the kind of pulse-pounding life or death scenarios reliant on both ingenuity and bouts of good fortune. It’s also perturbing to watch them unfold in the present.

His flight leads him to an abandoned roadside where he’s nevertheless invited to play football (soccer) with a precocious neighborhood kid named Driss. They build an instant rapport and their connections run deeper still, as we soon find out.

Whenever Georg stays within the confines of the city limits, he’s subject to the related police raids casing each room. If you don’t have your papers, you’re unceremoniously dragged away. By now it’s a daily occurrence. What becomes apparent is the rising sense of shame among the onlookers who watch and do nothing. What power do they have in such a world?

Georg lends a reluctant ear to fellow sojourners telling him their stories. Everyone seems weighed down by worries and troubles brought on by the tribulations of the times. They’re surprisingly forthcoming or rather they seem vociferous compared to individuals in Petzold’s previous movies. Although another distinction must be made.

His hero is fairly guarded as are a couple of the other central figures. It is the supporting characters who gladly use them as sounding boards to cast their thoughts on in this restless age. Even the narrator — an uncommon device for Petzold’s brand of restrained observational filmmaking — has his own insights to bring to the events.

The key again is how those central characters carry a bit of this pervasive despondency — this enigmatic nature holding us off but not completely alienating us. On the contrary, we want to know more about them as viewers transfixed by the fateful decisions they make and the encounters that befall them.

To begin with, Georg falls into a bit of luck donning the identity of a deceased writer and with it, the coveted opportunity at transit out of the country. The deceased man’s wife (Paula Beer) is a woman who drifts uncannily through his life throwing him glances as she motors on about her dutiful pursuits. What they are we have no idea. Although, with time, it’s easy enough to imagine.

That’s just it. Petzold is always toying with the arcane both in plot and characters because it’s in the ambiguities where his stories seem to come alive. It could be the first glance of the smartly dressed young woman on the street who touches Georg’s shoulder when the whole rest of the passing world seems not to pay him any heed. He’s invisible. And yet for some inexplicable reason — some cinematic kismet — she reaches out to him.

True, for the majority of the picture, it feels like she spends the movie walking in and out of places to build this air of mystique. Is she more of an object than a person? It’s easy to cry foul if only for the comfort of Petzold’s earlier collaborations with Nina Hoss. A mystifying woman put front and center can still stump us. What’s more, in the final act Marie becomes a living, breathing human being of fears and passions that turn strikingly palpable.

After she lost contact with her husband, she never gave up hope checking the consulate every day for any sign of news. Along the road, she was given a kind turn by an altruistic physician (Godehard Giese), and in a bedeviling world, they looked to one another for some amount of solace.

Their Rick’s Cafe becomes a corner pizzeria. Georg would always eat a Margherita there and find Marie stopping by. Later it becomes a meeting place with Richard — so mundane and typical, and yet it fits the context of the story.

As we find out, noble decisions aren’t so cut and dry here; they’re not capable of making our heart swell in the same romantic manner of Casablanca. We are constantly left questioning. What if the matrimonial ties aren’t so strong and beholden to the Hays Codes? What if Ilsa or Laszlo decided to stay behind at the last minute, making a grand sacrificial act null and void. What if the plane crashed en route? After all, the very thing happened to Glenn Miller over the English channel in 1944…

Speaking of music, it’s been so very long since I’ve seen Phoenix. Aside from the Vertiginous thematic elements and this same lingering sense of malaise, it seems I remember very little. It’s the impression that lasts and one scene — the scene where Nina Hoss sings “Speak Low” to her husband — imbued with so much subtext and bewitching power.

Down the road, years from now, the same lapses might happen with Transit. But I will remember the mood, this very concrete Casablanca-like mentality, and then another song. In a similar manner, the normally delphic Georg has a breach in character and shares the lullaby his mother used to sing to him. Hearing it on the radio brings the memory flooding back.

Or perhaps I will recall the other moment when, impersonating another man, he tells the consulate officer he’s done writing after all he’s seen. He wrote too many essays in school about vacations, holidays, and experiences to totally quash and trivialize everything substantive about those times.

To write about the atrocities he faced would be akin to that same sin. He’s not about to write another school essay. Even as the lines are spoken under an assumed identity, the words once more ring with an underlying resonance to denote a shared world.

The chilling edge of Transit is how it brings these obvious markers of the Holocaust into this out of body representation of our certain present. They feel poles apart until that creeping voice whispers doubts in the back of our minds. This is what I will remember. This is what will stay with me.

4/5 Stars

Phoenix (2014)


Speak low when you speak, love
Our summer day withers away too soon, too soon
Speak low when you speak, love
Our moment is swift
Like ships adrift we’re swept apart too soon
~ Speak Low (1943)

Anyone who’s watched a Christian Petzold film already knows that he crafts fascinating almost spellbinding films and that quality rests greatly on the laurels of Nina Hoss. Phoenix is yet another film that is a mesmerizing enigma.

It’s positively entrancing with its pacing — where you almost get lost within its minutes. Because although time never moves fast you quickly lose track as the mind is soon overwhelmed with a plethora of questions. In fact, all the time while you’re watching it all you can do is question. Implausibilities all but fade away in the presence of such uncertainty. If anything they get lost in the rubble.

It feels as if we’re trying to construct our own truth, which is almost maddeningly impossible because none of these characters seem ready to divulge any information. The past is a black shroud that everyone is reluctant to talk about. It makes sense because that soon after what do you say about the Holocaust? How do you cope or even begin to acknowledge the horrors that went on? It’s only 50, 60, 70 years later that we’ve finally been able to broach the subject as outsiders — people who did not experience those events firsthand. It’s easier for us to try and talk about it because we can never fully comprehend the climate. What would we have done? What would have happened to us? What would our lives have looked like in the aftermath?

The characters in Phoenix are beings in that post-war wasteland with specters hanging over them, and lives scarred by pain and suffering. They’re trying to salvage their existences the best they can, but they’re hardly existing as they did before the war. But allow me to backtrack for a moment.

Nelly (Nina Hoss) is physically maimed so horribly that her face is constantly covered in bloody bandages. Petzold does us a favor by not showing her visage before she gets reconstructive surgery. Like the shadow of the Holocaust, we are forced to imagine it on our own which is far more powerful. This is what her face looks like and this is perhaps how it happened.

What we do know is that she was arrested on October 4th, 1944 and her husband Johnny was as well. But Nelly’s faithful friend and guardian angel Lene says that he betrayed her. That’s what she believes, and yet upon hearing this news it hardly alters Nelly’s response. She’s still intent on finding him and picking up all the pieces. When she has a little more strength she begins wandering about the American sector looking for any signs of her former beau.

It turns out that Johnny works as a waiter in a cabaret Hall called Phoenix. When he first sets eyes on Nelly — it’s not his wife that he sees, but a wonderful impostor. She’s a woman who is strikingly similar, but her face is different. She’s the perfect accomplice as Johnny, or Johannes as he now goes tries to secure his dead wife’s assets.

What follows is his mission to make her into his old wife.  In many ways, it works as an inversion of the Vertigo conundrum. He thinks he’s making this woman into his deceased wife, and he coaches, dresses, and shapes her more in the image of Nelly. However, this hardly feels like an obsessive desire of dashed love, but a project to get him closer to his final goal. It’s not that sentimental, but Nelly follows along with the whole thing benevolently. To be close to Johnny is enough. But how does she even begin to break the news? Perhaps most frightening of all what will Johnny’s reaction be? After all, the wartime has changed them both.

So if you want to break it down to its most basic roots, Phoenix feels rather like a Holocaust film meeting Vertigo. But in essence, it defies that type of simple categorization. It lacks the odious horror of flashbacks and the glossy Hollywood production values of the latter. It fills its own niche altogether that even channels some of the darkness of noir. And there is no cathartic moment of emotional release. Instead, we are forced to watch as the characters bury their thoughts and feelings deeper and deeper. Perhaps they lie there somewhere under the surface. However, these are not histrionic people. They feel common and every day led by the performances of Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld.

In this way, the performances are muted and repressed. In fact, there is little headway in the film and few epiphanies until the very end. That’s when for a few brief solitary moments things fall into place. We don’t know what will happen afterward, and in a way, we are suspended in the moment — left to ponder so many things. You could either make the case that Phoenix has shallow characters, or that there is so much depth within them that we cannot even begin to understand — like icebergs still partially submerged.

Many wonderful films lose so much of their magic because they dispel too much — give away too many of their hard-fought secrets. But Phoenix makes us work through everything, and it can be hard going certainly, and yet it is a thoroughly gratifying experience. We watch movies to be moved. We watch movies to be perplexed. We watch movies to acknowledge our wonderment in the human condition because it is a complex quandary that continually reveals new bits of enlightenment. Phoenix might leave us with more riddles than answers, and we should be content in that reality. That’s part of the magic.Like the mythical Phoenix of old, in a way, these characters try and die to their old selves, and rise out of the ashes a new.  Life is never that easy — always being clouded by doubts as our pasts come back to haunt us. It’s how we deal with that past that matters most.

4.5/5 Stars

Barbara (2012)

Barbara_(2012_film)If you’re acquainted with director Christian Petzold you probably know what you’re in for. A character study that is deliberate and systematic in its execution, courtesy of Nina Hoss, and moreover impactful in more ways than one. In this film, the narrative mode of the period piece certainly serves Petzold quite well. The setting is East Germany circa 1980. The settings are wonderfully stark. Depressed representations of a bygone era and yet somehow still strangely beautiful for depicting a simpler age. As Americans, we have a certain perspective that includes Cold War sentiment, boycotting the Moscow Olympics, and the like. But it’s a much different even intimate picture on the inside.

Our person of interest is the eponymous Barbara, a nurse stationed in Berlin, who tried to get an exit visa to the West. Now she has been transferred to a rural locale to continue her work with close surveillance by the Stasi. Her primary colleague is chief physician Andre Reiser, who is genial, but from the get-go Barbara is aloof. She does not want friends and she knows anyone could be working with the police.  She goes about her work being the best nurse she can possibly be, treating patients humanely. Most notable is Stella a girl from a labor camp, who is suffering meningitis, and finds a comforting figure in Barbara. From then on she is the only person Stella trusts.

In her free time, Barbara can often be seen smoking, riding her bike, or taking the train, but there is always a purpose to her activity. It’s in quiet defiance of her plight — an active form of rebellion as she tries to rendezvous with her boyfriend from the West in an effort to reconnect with him. Unknowingly Dr. Reiser grows continually fonder of Barbara and continues to be nice to her because she is quite remarkable. Together they try and decipher what is wrong with a young man who is recovering from a suicide attempt. But of course, his necessary surgery coincides with Barbara’s set date of escape. What follows is far from melodrama, but it is a far tenser slow burn as we watch events unfold. Our heroine does something that will alter her future although we cannot know for certain. Sometimes the best place to end a story is inside our own minds, and that is true with Barbara.

It’s a film that can make you squirm, but also make you think and feel. The German scenery is often breathtaking, the perfect landscape for bike riding, and the birds chirp blissfully in the background. It is the ultimate irony that in such a peaceful land so much suppression and pain takes place. But then again there can be so much joy taken out of something so minute as a masterwork by Rembrandt, proving that the human spirit cannot be fully quelled even there.

In the film’s nuances, you are apt to find beauty and also great depth of character. Not just in Nina Hoss, who is once again brilliant carrying an air of mystery mingled with moroseness that lingers on her face. This might be a poor comparison, but Hoss reminds me in some respects to other European starlets like Juliette Binoche, Irene Jacob, and Julie Delpy, who all carry a fascinating aura around them. The truth is American actors, in general, have to use so many words and in this way, they lose some of their allure. Nothing is left unspoken. Nothing is left untrod. But with Barbara, we do not know her ins and outs, what she is thinking, or even how her story ends.

Next on the watch list is Phoenix, the latest Petzold/Hoss collaboration. It goes without saying that I am beyond excited.

4/5 Stars