With the wonderful Transit, Christian Petzold loosens his grip

Christian Petzold is a perfectionist. The celebrated German filmmaker, the best-known constituent of the so-called Berliner Schule movement that also includes Angela Schanelec and Maren Ade, makes movies of fastidious, super-disciplined rigour, exacting in construction and painstaking in every detail. The effect is often impressive — he knows how to manipulate, in the sense Hitchcock advocated, and his films patently achieve what they intend. He manages to contrive situations and arrangements of characters of maximum tension and dramatic yield; and then, with a deftness that approaches virtuosity, maneuvers them into codas that are among the most surprising, satisfying and indelible in cinema’s recent history.

Watching a Petzold movie, it is impossible to shake the sensation that what transpires has been thought through meticulously. But extreme precision has a tendency to stifle. It can inhibit spontaneity; it constrains life, precludes the latitude necessary to express the incoherence of lived experience.

In 2012’s Barbara, a physician in early-80s East Berlin hatches an escape plan with her lover to the West side, but is waylaid on the eve of her departure by both a critical surgery that demands her attention and an imperilled young labour-camp escapee who needs a rescue operation if she’s to live.  The fraught moral crises that converge with a convenience to the drama is at once thrilling and mechanical. This overdetermined quality likewise left me cool on 2014’s Phoenix, in which a Holocaust survivor, returning to liberated Berlin and unrecognizable after major reconstructive surgery, reconnects with her husband, who wishes this woman he presumes is a stranger to pose as his “deceased” wife. The trouble with these films is not that their dependency on coincidence makes them implausible. It’s that the coincidences are orchestrated to a degree that feels overwritten, perfect to — ironically — a fault.

“Orderly handwriting,” as a narrator describes the penmanship of a letter in Petzold’s new film Transit. Which he then corrects: “No, not orderly. Immaculate.” Indeed. As it happens, Transit is the first Petzold film since 2008’s Jerichow productively free of this compulsive perfectionism. Watching Transit, I never felt it was simply bounding toward the inevitable or following a trajectory charted like a diagram. He’s allowed himself to risk uncertainty, and in so doing furnished this exquisite movie space to explore the unpredictable.

The story chronicles what for Petzold are familiar concerns. A German refugee, Georg (Franz Rogowski), flees to the French port city of Marseille, anxious to secure passage to safety before the slow sweep of an occupying army eradicates him as part of its campaign of “spring cleaning.” There are the usual Petzold hallmarks of hazardous relationships and changing identities: Georg is mistaken at the Mexican consulate for a recently deceased writer and given his travel documents, a windfall potentially compromised when Georg meets Marie (Paula Beer), the dead writer’s wife, waiting for her husband to turn up. Yet, as the twists of fate and strokes of luck happen, no clear schematic reveals itself, and rather than be clarified by (mis)fortune, the interlocking characters and overlapping threads only get more mysterious, and more complex.

A significant touchstone is Franz Kafka. Midway through the film, as Georg endures another in a seemingly interminable sequence of dilatory conversations with ambassadors and diplomats in charge of granting visas and permits for travel, he recites a story by the late author as whom he is posing, about a man waiting to be conducted to damnation who discovers the waiting room itself is hell. The man is obviously Georg; occupied France, a bureaucratic chaos of embassy queues and street raids, is obviously a kind of purgatory. As in Kafka, the torment inflicted is caustic, the misery suffered blackly funny. As in Kafka, the story unfolds with the grim unreality of a dream, the rules of the place as mercurial as a nightmare.

This sinister atmosphere manifests most conspicuously in the setting. Transit is adapted faithfully from a novel by Anna Seghers written in 1942 and set during the German invasion of France. Petzold transposes the action to an unspecified time that by the evidence of wardrobe, production design and set decoration is unmistakably modern-day, or close enough to it. Characters drive contemporary vehicles, eat at contemporary restaurants; the narrator at one point even makes reference to Dawn of the Dead. But still enough remains of the original material and the particulars of its period setting for Transit to seem like more than merely a modern retelling of the story. Where the plot demands it, the world of the film resembles the early 1940s, including the style of Georg’s counterfeit passport, the typewriters on which people write manuscripts and letters and the modes of transportation available to the refugees wishing to flee.

The effect produced by this timelessness is uncanny. One striking implication is the parallel drawn between the refugees hunted down by Germany during the war and the refugees denied safe harbour in Europe today. In one of the film’s most astonishing moments, Georg pays a visit to a family of refugees he’s been helping, only to discover two dozen North Africans, who greet him with eerie recognition. In this instant, the two periods of the film, past and present, seem to collapse into one. 

Petzold never before seemed capable of so audacious and stark a rupture. It suggests real risk. Perfectionist no longer, he cedes control to danger, and as a result finds life with Transit.

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