This Is Not an Exit
By Adam Nayman

NYFF 2018:
Transit
Dir Christian Petzold, Germany, Music Box Films

In an interview with Jordan Cronk for Film Comment, Christian Petzold described his three most recent films—Barbara, Phoenix, and the new Transit—as comprising a trilogy he’s titled “Love in Times of Oppressive Systems.” It would seem that not even austere German art-house auteurs can resist the fascination-cum-obsession with narrative and thematic continuity in our moment of prestige television and expanded cinematic universes.

In Barbara, the oppressive system was visible and political: the intractable ideology and bureaucracy of the GDR, which limited the mobility of Nina Hoss’s heroine—a stasis represented by repeated shots of Barbara bicycling back and forth through the woods to her lover, her to-and-fro mocking the possibility of real progress or escape. And filmmaking itself is, or often can be, an oppressive system, which seemed to me to be the secret subtext of Phoenix, a film whose overt Hitchcockian allusions on the level of plot and imagery also harbored a subtle, complex mediation on the idea of what it is to both direct and be directed. The only thing that Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) doesn’t instruct Esther (Hoss) to do while impersonating his late wife Nelly is to love him, except that because Esther actually is Nelly—her face and identity reconstructed after a near-fatal injury—she’s already infatuated. It is only out of love—foolish and futile, but ardent still—that she allows herself to be micromanaged into being a parodic doppelgänger of her old self, while Johnny’s belief that he’s working with a stranger allows for his own dispassionate approach. In the final revolution of the plot, these polarities reverse, with the oppressed party reasserting her own persona and the auteur realizing the totality of his loss.

While there are many aspects binding Transit to these two films—including, of course, an oppressive system, embodied here by the vagaries of international migration in wartime—Petzold is working in a slightly different register; it’s at once more rigorously conceptual and less sociopolitically specific than its predecessors. In Barbara and Phoenix, the inner lives of the protagonists were kept at a remove by both precise, judiciously distanced camera work (Petzold’s signature, even if his supposed clinicism is at least as much of a critical cliché as a real stylistic tic) and the characters’ own plausible reticence in their respective situations; it made sense for both Barbara and Nelly to keep their cards close to their chests. But in Transit, Georg (Franz Rogowski) doesn’t just have a poker face: he’s an utter blank. And while this hollowness is both knowingly built-in and vital to this adaptation of a 1944 novel by the German-Jewish Communist author Anna Seghers, it recalibrates the effect—and affect—of the material in intriguing and unsettling ways.

Georg’s inscrutable emptiness begins with the way he’s introduced in media res, conferring with a friend about the best method of fleeing Nazi-occupied Paris without much exposition about his life or experiences to that point; before he’s a person, Georg is a refugee. That limited exposition is complicated by Petzold’s already much-publicized—and, in certain precincts, already quite satisfactorily deconstructed—formal-conceptual gimmick, which is to stage the story absent any period signifiers. It’s an audaciously simple trick that simultaneously updates and universalizes Seghers’s fable of wayward souls and repudiates the period-piece pornographization of 20th-century European (and specifically German) history; while on some level the relative minimalism of Barbara and Phoenix could be distilled to a matter of mid-level financing and the director’s tamped-down artistic temperament, their styles are intriguingly recontextualized by Transit’s gambit.

The various impacts of Transit’s then-is-now shooting scheme are almost self-evident in description—an unavoidable discombobulation begetting a deeper focus on the choreography of the story (since the scenery is rendered superfluous) as well as whatever circa-2018 injustices you can project into the mise-en-scène. It’s maybe more beneficial to talk about how it works in concert with the performances, Rogowski’s in particular. Besides the fact that it’s startling to watch a Petzold movie not tied to the movements of a female protagonist (or even more specifically, not designed around Hoss’s statuesque verticality), Georg’s blankness, which is a concrete quality achieved by Rogowski rather than a byproduct of lazy or misaligned acting, is analogous not only to his status as a man stuck between stations but also the figurative neutrality of the backdrop. He’s a cipher traversing an abstract space—a conceit within a conceit—and so his adoption of another man’s persona is not just a matter of survival: it’s a fateful form of self-actualization.

The identity Georg assumes is that of Weidel, a controversial, deceased (seemingly by his own hand) German author whose output, besides creating a parallel with Seghers, can be taken as evidence of principled resistance. But the writing itself, which Georg discovers and absorbs during his trip to Marseille to visit the wife of another mortally wounded dissident, isn’t explicitly political—rather, it’s a slice of life, and Georg responds to Weidel’s empathy for everyday people whom he might otherwise resent. Because Petzold is an inveterately clever, resourceful dramatist, he links Weider’s authorial voice in the novel-within-the-story to his script’s own Kubrick-omniscient narration, essentially placing Georg both in possession of and subordinate to a panoramic, third-person perspective. More importantly, though, Georg’s split-second decision to allow an authority at the port city’s Mexican consulate to literally mistake him for Weidel instead of the random keeper of his personal effects works beautifully as a metaphor for the larger condition on display in every corner of the story: the desire to start a new life.

Unsurprisingly, Transit is intricate stuff: Georg’s masquerade as Weidel leads him straight to the late writer’s wife, Marie (Paula Beer), who is unaware that her husband is dead and yet is also already involved with a local physician (Godehard Giese) who desires to leave Marseille but can’t do so without abandoning her. The floor-to-ceiling spread of Petzold’s mirroring devices renders Georg, now flush with cash and Weidel’s valuable transit papers, as a double not only for Weidel but also the doctor, caught between urgency and guilt over getting out of town; at the same time that he’s trying to convince the port authorities that he’s a great writer, he’s also becoming a de facto Dad to Driss (Lilien Batman), a half-Algerian boy living in the city’s ghetto district who is, like Marie, ultimately just patiently waiting to be left behind in Georg’s escape.

That all these interpersonal vertices are comprehensible and clean onscreen is a testament to Petzold’s direction, which has evolved from the strident, borrowed formalism of his early, Berlin School–affiliated works into something resembling genuine, lived-in mastery; his fleet, humming spareness isn’t the only way to make a smart, salable art film in the 21st century, but it works well enough for him that there’s no need to touch up the blueprint. It’s in the writing that Petzold takes genuine risks and reaps the mixed rewards, positing Georg as entry point into a narrative shaped like a melodrama and yet blocked—again, purposefully, and also not fully—from accessing those big, rich emotions by the character’s lack of definition. In a way, the Petzold film that Transit most reminds me of is his 2008 James M. Cain riff Jerichow, in which the oppressive system was everything-old-is-new again German racism and the postman rang twice for the Turkish entrepreneur impeding the romance of two blond, beautiful nationals; there, as here, the grim inevitability of watching the pieces fall into place provided its own sort of perfect (dis)satisfaction even as it was difficult to feel truly, authentically devastated in the process.

This is the intellectual-emotional trade-off I’m pondering with regard to Transit, which functions so efficiently as its own oppressive system—closing off escape avenues and catharsis points for its characters like the self-activating flood compartments on a punctured ocean liner—that it arguably cancels itself out, something I didn’t feel about Barbara, where the fatalistic contrivances were mitigated by the chemistry between Hoss and Zehrfeld, or Phoenix, which weaponized that same ineffable sentimentality and then salted the spot where our guard got pierced. I just didn’t feel that tension between Rogowski and Beer, and since they’re both strong performers doing exactly what they’ve been instructed, I can’t help but wonder if Georg and Marie’s lack of connection—despite his choices being very much those of a man in love and her instant attraction quite acutely expressing the loneliness of a woman who can only subconsciously acknowledge that her beloved is dead and gone—isn’t finally Petzold’s point: that when it comes to the purgatorial politics of transit (and life itself) it’s everyone for themselves. Maybe that’s why the film’s final image, which literalizes Hemingway’s old maxim about for whom the bell tolls more succinctly than any finale since The Sopranos, struck me less as a tableau of thwarted romance than an acknowledgment of the patient, passive, solitary nature of life and death: that no matter where we think we may be going, we’re all ultimately just waiting around.