The 68th Berlin International Film Festival took place underneath two significant clouds that did not have anything to do with the films as such. First, in the post-Harvey Weinstein era, the #MeToo movement stirred up debate in Berlin as well, not least as a result of the announcement by its director, Dieter Kosslick, that he had disqualified from the festival’s line-up a number of films whose directors had been accused of sexual assault. Yet, the vagueness of his announcement, which to his critics was little more than yet another of his regrettable media stunts that are meant to prove the Berlinale worthy of its reputation as a political film festival, quickly caused controversy. Not only did Kosslick refuse to name which films he did not invite, thereby raising questions about the veracity of his claim, but he also saw himself quickly accused of hypocrisy because one of the better-known filmmakers presenting new work at the festival, Kim Ki-Duk, was confronted with allegations of sexual abuse relating to the production of his film, Moebiuseu (Moebius, 2013).
In a way, Kosslick’s questionable handling of the #MeToo movement at the Berlinale was largely symptomatic of what his critics have long identified as the main problem with his leadership of the festival: his lack of a political and artistic vision, which manifests itself in a lack of focus for which the festival compensates with an extraordinary large number of films. “Something for everyone,” so the Berlinale’s implied populist curatorial principle seems to be. While this may very well please the broader public — the festival is the largest and most audience-friendly in the world — it comes at the cost of the festival’s reputational decline in comparison to its main competitors, Cannes and Venice, but also Toronto, Sundance, or Locarno. This, in any case, was one of the main concerns expressed by 79 German (mostly) filmmakers (including directors as prominent and diverse as Fatih Akin, Andreas Dresen, Dominik Graf, Edgar Reitz, Helke Sander, Doris Dörrie, Margarethe von Trotta, and, notably, almost the entire group associated with the Berlin School: Christian Petzold, Thomas Arslan, Maren Ade, Valeska Grisebach, Benjamin Heisenberg, Ulrich Köhler, Henner Winckler, and Christoph Hochhäusler) in an open letter first published online in Germany’s leading newsmagazine, Der Spiegel. In it, the signees take the opportunity of the impending end of Kosslick’s reign (his contract expires in 2019) to argue for the need of a programmatic renewal of the Berlinale led by “an outstanding curatorial personality who burns for the cinema, is superbly connected around the world, and is capable of leading the festival into the future as an equal to Cannes and Venice.” Such renewal, so the letter suggests, would also require a reduction of the sheer number of films the festival includes in its program, precisely so that it gets the chance to define more carefully its fundamental orientation and thus place on the map of premiere film festivals.
The publication of this open letter was the second massive cloud hanging over the festival. While the letter does not mention Kosslick by name, the German press, arguably led by a number of his surrogates, quickly pushed back, turning the argument about the festival’s future into a debate about Kosslick as a person — a personalisation of the debate that in turn resulted in a vicious attack on Hochhäusler. Whereas the film industry magazine Blickpunkt Film falsely claimed that “an ex-critic, who today is a representative of the Berlin School and enjoys friendly support from film critics […], collected signatures from renowned colleagues,” Der Spiegel polemicised that the alleged Kosslick-bashing mainly shows that Hochhäusler, who supposedly spearheaded the letter-writing effort, “is more talented as an integrant than as a director.”1 What is noteworthy about this dispute is the degree of vitriol that the German film establishment (rather than the Berlinale itself) manages to muster against the Berlin School — a group of filmmakers who, we learn in the same Der Spiegel article, “was never really discovered by an audience.” If this gleefully made claim were in fact true, then one might be excused for wondering why representatives of the German film industry and its press surrogates would even bother pushing back with such venom and factual inaccuracies — unless, that is, the letter did in fact lay its fingers into the open wound that German film is, to appropriate the title of Dominik Graf and Johannes F. Siefert’s documentary about German cinema, Offene Wunde deutscher Film (Open Wounds — A Journey Through German Genre Films, 2017), the sequel to their Verfluchte Liebe deutscher Film (Doomed Love — A Journey Through German Genre Films, 2016).2 As a long-term observer of the Berlin School’s fate in the German media, I cannot help but suspect that it is not a coincidence that the perfectly reasonable, and in many ways hardly controversial, call for a renewal of the festival after nearly two decades under Kosslick’s leadership (years, it should be noted, during which its Competition included a number of Berlin School films) is reduced to an attack on Hochhäusler (and on the Berlin School as a whole): after all, he is perhaps the Berlin School’s most outspoken proponent and widely known for taking critical positions via-a-vis the state of contemporary German cinema, including Kosslick’s role in it.3
Put differently, the fact that the German film industry’s proponents decided to attack Hochhäusler rather than actually engaging the basic demands of the letter on their own terms reveals, it seems to me, its deep-rooted fear about the real possibility that the only contemporary German filmmakers that are actually consistently capable of holding their own in a global context are those of the Berlin School – the very “bastard children” of the German film industry the latter tried to disavow ever since Günter Rohrbach (then president of the German Film Academy that awards the German Film Prize) polemicised in 2007 against German film critics and, implicitly, the Berlin School.4 Certainly, judging by this year’s offerings of German films at the festival, I have to say that the proof is in the proverbial pudding: of the 25 German films I watched — including a number of films included in the LOLA sidebar that features all of the films long-listed for the German Film Prize, which is to say, mostly films that already played in German theatres—the two that stood heads and shoulders above the rest were Grisebach’s Western and Petzold’s Transit.
Of the rest of the crop, the vast majority were utterly forgettable, with the laudable exceptions of Robert Schwentke’s Der Hauptmann (The Captain), which like Western was part of the LOLA series; Thomas Stuber’s In den Gängen (In the Aisles), which like Transit competed for the Golden Bear (neither won an award); and Susan Gordanshekan’s Die defekte Katze (A Dysfunctional Cat), included in the Perspective German Cinema series, which features films from the latest year of German film production (often graduation films from German film academies) to provide the audience with a sense of the current state of German cinema — a preview that, I confess, year-in and year-out depresses me more than it makes me excited about my national cinema’s prospects.
Without question, the reasons for the overall lack of quality in German cinema are complex, and space does not permit me to say much more about this matter here. However, we can find one clue in Graf and Siebert’s documentaries about the history of German cinema in which they passionately advocate for a rejuvenation of German genre cinema. Their argument is well taken — and Graf, for one, is someone whose films time and again showcase what German genre cinema could be like. However, the nature of genre cinema is precisely such that it depends on industrially produced repetition. For genre cinema to exist there must, by definition, be many films that collectively would constitute the genre. Given that Germany, with few exceptions such as the comedy genre and the history film, does not have a well-established genre film tradition anymore (at least not on the big screen), the only way to rejuvenate such a tradition is by explicitly committing to producing many genre films for the cinema. Yet, doing so would also require that the industry (and critics) embrace the fact that most of such films would, at least initially, be rather underwhelming if not outright bad: after all, it is only through repeatedly practicing the craft of genre filmmaking that, over time, a film industry can elevate its game and make reliably solid films in any given genre — films that can hold their own when compared to those from other nations that excel at genre filmmaking, including Hollywood (the genre filmmaking tradition par excellence), France, South Korea, or Hong Kong.
Thus, it is perhaps unfair for me to complain about films such as Christian Alvart’s Steig. Nicht. Aus! (Don’t. Get. Out!), an attempt at action filmmaking in the vein of the Speed franchise. The film’s basic conceit is that our protagonist, a real estate developer, cannot exit his car (nor can his two young children in the backseat) lest he set off a bomb planted by someone who, we find out late in the film, wants to avenge his wife’s suicide, which he blames on greedy real estate profiteers who gentrify Berlin and cause decent and hardworking people to lose their homes. Yet, rather than a worthy addition to the action-filmmaking tradition, Don’t. Get. Out! is better regarded as an inaction film.5 The film is maddeningly slow at the very moments when it should move its action momentum to peak velocity. There is perhaps no better example of such failed action-filmmaking than the film’s handling of the police. At the very moments when one would expect the police to engage in frantic action, they instead leisurely stroll around and engage in faux-heated debates with each other, as if they had all the time in the world. Likewise, the chase scenes through Berlin must strike any connoisseur of the genre as more akin to a family’s Sunday afternoon drive in the countryside than anything resembling the Hollywood or Hong Kong action films to which the film aspires. Even the staging of prime moments of tension is handled in ways that are puzzlingly poor. Consider, for example, the moment when our protagonist’s car is momentarily trapped in Berlin’s famous Gendarmenmarkt by a number of police cars.
I say trapped — but an overhead shot soon reveals a sizeable, and near comical, gap between the police cars: any Hollywood regular-guy-cum-action-hero would instantly escape through it without even batting an eye.
Why, one might wonder, did the filmmakers not notice this gap to which the overhead shot (unintentionally) calls attention — thereby unwittingly revealing how lacking the film is in basic genre-filmmaking craftsmanship? To offer one, albeit speculative, explanation for why German cinema continues to struggle with making these kind of films: in a country where the real police is, for historical reasons, not really scary (at least not to German citizens), there is simply no lived context that filmmakers could consciously or unconsciously draw on for their attempts to render German cops in action. Simply put, German police cars are too small and thus decidedly not fear-inducing in the way that American police cars are; German cops generally strive to be their citizens’ “Freund und Helfer” (“friend and aid”) rather than act like the trigger-happy macho cops across the Atlantic. So, even while immigrants and refugees in Germany undoubtedly have a considerably more vexed relationship with the German police, I think it is true that most Germans are simply not afraid of the police. In such a socio-cultural context, it is perhaps understandable that filmic representations of the police fall short of action genre filmmaking conventions.
Another film that seeks to compete with global action filmmaking is Özgür Yildirim’s Nur Gott kann mich richten (Only God Can Judge Me). Whereas Don’t. Get. Out! ultimately does not trust that it is enough to be a genre film and instead weighs its genre story down with a socio-political critique of gentrification that feels artificially tagged on (as if someone during the script-development phase had demanded that the script include a social “problem” before the film could be financed), Yildirim’s thriller is laudably oblivious to any socio-political context. Instead, the film unrepentantly keeps its focus on its genre conventions revolving around a small-time criminal who is fresh out of jail and now looks to start a new life, for which he needs capital. In the absence of more legitimate means, however, he agrees — you guessed it — to one final and ill-conceived crime, which soon enough triggers a series of increasingly implausible acts of violence, including those committed by a female cop who herself must raise 30,000 Euros to pay for the life-saving surgery of her young daughter.
The problem with the film is not the implausibility of its action, however; after all, most genre films are hardly realistic, and audiences do not expect them to be. Where the film falls short, however, is at the level of its protagonists — on both sides of the law — for at no time does the film ever make us care about either the cop (played by Birgit Minichmayr) and her plight or the criminal (played by Moritz Bleibtreu) who (allegedly) hopes to start a new life. But good action films do just enough to make the audience root for the protagonists — think, for example, about Michael Mann’s films; in this case, however, the only pleasure one can derive from the film is from its execution of the genre conventions — and the best I can say about this aspect is that the film tries.
I could discuss similar films that played at this year’s Berlinale — but these two examples must suffice to demonstrate the dilemma German cinema faces: these genre films suffer on the level of craft, while also facing the problem that the socio-cultural context might simply not lend itself to the kind of genre filmmaking (at least with regard to the thriller and action film genres) that seems to come so organically to filmmakers working in different national contexts. The only way to fix this problem, I suspect, is for the German film industry to keep making such films — in the hopes that the sheer repetition of staging action scenes (and other genre conventions typical for the thriller and action film) will eventually lead to an improved skill level among the filmmakers so that at least on that level their films can compete with their peers from around the globe.6
But it was not just the German crime (or thriller) and action genre films that fell flat at this year’s Berlinale. I wish, for example, that I could have the time back for the one hour I wasted watching Philip Gröning’s Mein Bruder heißt Robert und ist ein Idiot (My Brother’s Name is Robert and He is an Idiot) before walking out of this three-hour long Teutonic exercise in treading on Terrence Malick-ia. The film focuses on two high school-age twins, Robert and Elena, the latter having to prepare for her high school philosophy exam. Taking place in a cornfield somewhere in southern Germany, the film evokes Malick’s work not only because of its heavy-handed philosophising dialogue but also because of its strained attempt to infuse its cinematography with the very meaning that its dialogue about philosophy, including Being and Time, never achieves. I did not stay long enough to witness what other critics have described as the film’s “torture porn” moments, precisely because I felt tortured enough just by the film’s first hour—one that felt as tedious to me as reading Heidegger (but considerably less profound).
Also problematic were the latest attempts of German cinema to engage historical subject matters. Neither Lars Kraume’s Das schweigende Klassenzimmer (The Silent Revolution) nor Emily Atef’s 3 Tage in Quiberon (3 Days in Quiberon) managed to justify the need to tell their true stories today. Atef’s film focuses on the famous three days Romy Schneider spent in Quiberon, a French spa town where the troubled actress tried to recover (physically as well as mentally) and yet agreed to be interviewed for one of Germany’s then-leading weekly yellow-press magazines, Der Stern. While Thomas W. Kiennast’s black-and-white cinematography is quite beautiful to behold (Gröning’s film certainly features some excellent cinematographic moments as well), Atef’s film never manages to convey why we should care, today, about this brief moment in Schneider’s well-documented life, including her never-ending struggle with the German press, her inability to escape the role of Sissi that made her instantly famous as a teenager, and the various tragedies that befell her, including the suicide of her ex-husband.7 The film is not a biopic per se (and Atef declared that she did not intend to make one): thus, audiences who are not already familiar with Schneider certainly will not come away from viewing the film with much of a sense of her life’s story); yet, given it is not a biopic, one wonders what the film is, or what it tries to accomplish. In ways that oddly resemble Only God Can Judge Me, it, too, never manages to make the audience care about its protagonist. While we see Schneider suffering, the film’s narrative and cinematographic strategies do not manage to bring its subject affectively close to the viewer. Consequently, we are left observing Schneider being interviewed and photographed but without ever really knowing why any of this matters or should matter to us today.
Similarly puzzling is The Silent Revolution. The film tells the true story of a group of East German high school students whose observing of a minute of silence to express their solidarity with the Hungarian uprising in 1956 pushed the East German government to accuse them of counter-revolutionary tendencies and eventually led many of the students to escape to West Berlin over the Christmas holidays that year. Unlike Schneider’s biography, this story is certainly one that is not well-known. However, like 3 Days in Quiberon, The Silent Revolution never imparts why we should care today about this story because the film fails to investigate its narrative attitude towards its subject matter. Akin to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006), Kraume’s film approaches the past from the point of view of the victors of history, who, as Hochhäusler’s Die Lügen der Sieger (The Lies of the Victors, 2014) reminds us, often lie. Most egregiously, Kraume takes no interest at all in the students’ antagonists — most importantly the minister whose wrath against the “counter-revolutionaries” is due to the torture he suffered in Nazi concentration camps where he found himself as a committed communist resistance fighter.
The film does not attempt to take seriously the reasons for his dislike of the children of the petty-bourgeoisie — of the very Nazis, as he points out with considerable contempt, who were responsible for his suffering. Put differently, The Silent Revolution does not once bother imagining how anyone possibly could, in 1956, be truly committed to the East German state – a cinematic attitude to German history that is clearly incorrect in relation to its reality and one that can unselfconsciously be taken only from the point of the view of the post-unification West German victors. This lie, however, directly contradicts the film’s conservative film aesthetic that, like so many other German history films, tries to persuade audiences of the veracity of not just the story but also the film’s attitude towards it by overwhelming us with set design accuracy and reliance on the tried and tested means of the period or costume film – a representational realism that seeks to naturalise the film’s attitude towards its subject as incontestable.
In stark contrast to Kraume’s take on German history was one of the best films I saw at the festival, Robert Schwentke’s The Captain. The film tells the true story of a young German soldier who during the final weeks of World War Two runs away from the Wehrmacht but eventually ends up committing mass murder while impersonating a Captain with the help of a uniform he happens to stumble upon while trying to survive after deserting his army unit. Unlike The Silent Revolution, The Captain’s narrative focus is not on the victims (who eventually become victors) of history but the perpetrators — a true rarity in the history of German cinema that is made even more remarkable by the fact that the film does not concern itself with the famous culprits (as does Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Der Untergang [Downfall, 2004]) but, rather, with the “unknown” wrongdoers, that is, the “little guys” who, once afforded the opportunity, displayed the same murderous tendencies than their more famous leaders. The film is brutal without being sensationalistic, honest about the violence without being exploitative. It goes out of its way to ensure that the audience takes interest in its protagonist, the merely 21 year-old Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), but without making us identify with him — which is precisely what so many other German films at this year’s Berlinale did not manage, whether Only God Can Judge Me, 3 Days in Quiberon, Don’t. Get. Out!, or My Brother’s Name, or, frankly, Fatih Akin’s simplistic and overrated film about Nazi violence against Turks in contemporary Germany, Aus dem Nichts (In the Fade), Oskar Roehler’s tired satire about the wealthy, Herrliche Zeiten (Subs), or Helene Hegemann’s Axolotl Overkill, a Berlin film about a reckless female teenager that could have easily been made in the 1990s during the city’s famous raving decade but that today lacks any raison d’être. And the film ultimately manages to pose questions about Germany in the present as much as it makes us wonder about the very circumstances that enabled this strange, indeed grotesque story to take place in 1945. Shot (with one exception) in black and white by Florian Ballhaus (son of Michael), the film is set to a score that is more industrial sound than music; yet, it is the combination of the clinically clean black-and-white cinematography, the disturbing score, and the narrative’s single-minded focus on the protagonist’s actions (there is no moment when the film seeks to psychologise him) by which the film manages to simultaneously solicit, on the one hand, our fascination with and, increasingly, horror about the events depicted — even long after Herold has proven how scarily easy it is for him to order mass murder (and, whenever necessary, to set an example by killing himself) — and, on the other hand, to ensure that we keep some intellectual distance from the diegetic events. What makes the film ultimately compelling is precisely the fact that while it is based on a true story, its primary goal is not to represent historical events truthfully but rather to find aesthetic means by which to investigate how one can cinematically render visible past crimes that nevertheless are also suggestive about today without affording viewers the ability to assume the comfortable subject position of historical distance and moral superiority.
The Captain was, for me, one of the highlights of the crop of this year’s German films at the Berlinale precisely because it takes risks (and largely succeeds) in turning to the German past for the purposes of its present. That is, the filmmaker quite clearly posed himself the question of relevancy: why tell this story now — a question too many German filmmakers seem to be unwilling to ask. The best German films at the Berlinale embraced this question, however, including Thomas Stuber’s In the Aisles, an unassuming drama set in a large, German version of a super Walmart. In subtle fashion, the film tells us much about both the lingering and un-worked-through effects of unification almost three decades after the fall of the Wall and the conditions of work in one of the world’s wealthiest countries that has nevertheless created a large population of economically disenfranchised labourers that are socio-economically trapped — a state of being the film perfectly renders palpable in form of the vast building and its phosphorescent lights that regulate the characters’ daily drudgery.
Yet, far from a typical German social-problem film, In the Aisles meets the protagonists where they are (rather than where society thinks they should be). As a result, Stuber manages to render sensible small moments of utopian bliss without ever denying the reality of his characters’ economic and psychic circumstances. Specifically, the film accomplishes this in those moments when its characters seem to be able to wrest away some aesthetic pleasure from the essential stagnancy of their jobs, namely precisely when they experience some sense of almost ballet-like movement while driving the forklift trucks through the store’s aisles. Yet, by allowing his characters to experience this sensation of movement, however occasionally, the film does not insinuate a happy ending for them, let alone serve as an apologia for contemporary labour conditions affecting vast parts of Germany’s population; rather, the film subtly evokes an alternative to the prevailing neoliberal dogma – one grounded in non-monetary motives of care and collegiality. However, that the times are not particularly receptive to this alternative is hardly left in doubt.
In many ways, The Captain and In the Aisles were in their very different ways singular films among the German offerings at this year’s Berlinale. In my view, they were only matched by a number of films that are part of what I think made for the most compelling cluster of films: namely those dealing with questions of (im)migration and of being a refugee, including Markus Imhoof’s Eldorado, which in the main Competition impressed with rarely if ever seen footage of the situation in the middle of the Mediterranean while weaving the director’s biography into the documentary as a means to connect his childhood during World War Two in Switzerland with the plight of African refugees trying to reach the “paradise” of Switzerland, Germany, or the Scandinavian countries today; Jakob Preuss’ Als Paul über das Meer kam—Tagebuch einer Begegnung (When Paul Came Over the Sea—Journal of an Encounter), which follows its eponymous subject on his challenging journey from Cameroon to Germany and was included in the LOLA series together with Ai Weiwei’s epic, large-scale documentary, Human Flow and Ziad Kalthoum’s Taste of Cement, which portrays Syrian workers in Lebanese exile; Brazilian-Algerian director Karim Aïnouz’s Zentralflughafen THF (Central Airport THF), which documents the situation of refugees from the Middle East and Northern Africa in the hangars of Berlin’s erstwhile central airport by repeatedly foregrounding its famous architecture as a means to put in stark relief the refugees’ circumstances of being largely immobile and cut off from life (at home, in the German capital, and, for that matter, their ability to live their own lives autonomously) for well over a year; as well as Susan Gordanshekan’s The Dysfunctional Cat, a low-key drama about an Iranian man and woman who, as a result of an arranged encounter, marry, move together in his apartment in Berlin, subsequently face difficulties adjusting to life together, and eventually separate, all the while revealing in nuanced fashion the cost of assimilation for immigrants in contemporary Germany.
Together, these films, whether they actually take place in Germany or are “merely” financed by German producers, offer a fascinating Bestandsaufnahme (stock-taking) of contemporary Germany more than a quarter century after its unification. That is, these films tell us something about Germany in the age of Angela Merkel’s “Wir schaffen das” (we can do it), as she famously declared on 31 August, 2015 at a press conference about the European refugee crisis — a much-discussed flamboyant public speech act by the otherwise notoriously bland German chancellor that opened Germany’s borders to well over a million refugees, an act that has cost her many votes in the most recent national election and is one of the reasons commonly given for the rise of the far right political party AfD (Alternative for Germany) at the polls across the country in the last few years.
It is precisely this context that also frames the two best German films at this year’s Berlinale, Valeska Grisebach’s Western and Christian Petzold’s Transit, both of which investigate the complicated Germany-Europe dialectic. The former foregrounds economic questions by focusing on “displaced” German blue-collar workers in Bulgaria and poses questions about the German present framed through the film’s Bulgarian setting; it does so, however, by directly raising the issue of narrative point of view – one that neither privileges a German point of view (that of the director), nor a Bulgarian point of view (the narrative’s locational framework through which we have to read the film’s events), thereby affectively situating the viewer within a self-deconstructing “national” perspective, or perspective on the (German) nation and its “others.” Thus, Grisebach’s film dramatises (German) national perspective / the perspective on the (German) nation and its “others” by using a generic framework – the western – to shed light on contemporary Germany’s struggle with “otherness”. Like Transit, it ultimately not only reveals the falsity of this (cherished) self-other dialectic that has once again become common currency in German political discourse; Western also provokes its homegrown audience with the proposition that this alleged purity of Germanness as the hard-working and disciplined beacon in a Europe adrift is nothing other than a self-serving political and economic myth that erases the social and historical truth of both Germany’s “others’” crucial contributions to Germany’s own well-being and the very self-differentiating movement of becoming that defines Germanness beyond the ideological parameters once again au courant in Germany’s neoliberal guise.8
In turn, Transit — a film that in my view should have won the Competition but instead went entirely empty-handed — also works with and through genre filmmaking conventions as a means not only to examine in remarkably ambitious and beautifully executed ways Germany’s present-day struggle with its “others” but also to refract the seeming contemporary specificity of this struggle with an ingenious narrative conceit that ultimately results in the merging of distinct historical epochs while simultaneously transcending their spatiotemporal realities in one fell swoop. (I can only speculate why Transit did not win any awards. Certainly, the Berlinale is historically reticent to honour home-grown productions, since it quite understandably does not want to give the impression to its coveted international guests that the festival is an occasion to celebrate German film(maker)s. However, I also cannot help but wonder about the fact that this year’s jury president was Tom Tykwer, the very director who was arguably the most conspicuous absence from the signatory list of the open letter about the future of the Berlinale: was it in the end politically impossible for Tykwer and his jury to award, of all films, Petzold’s the coveted Golden Bear, just because doing so would perhaps be (however incorrectly) read as yet another dig at Kosslick? We likely shall never know.) The film, based on Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel, brings together many of Petzold’s longstanding tropes and concerns, most especially his interest in depicting characters who live ghost-like existences — people who are neither alive nor dead and are stuck in bubble spaces, as the director once put it. But the film also directly evokes some of his previous films — it clearly resonates with both Phoenix (2014) and Yella (2007), for example; it weaves his own biography into the narrative in more obvious ways than he has perhaps done before (an entire scene is devoted to discussing soccer, one of Petzold’s private obsessions); and notwithstanding the conspicuous absence of Nina Hoss, who has starred in six of Petzold’s films and through their collaboration has become one, if not the, best known face of German filmmaking, she has an uncanny, or ghost-like, presence in the film because the film’s lead actress, Paula Beer, has more than a passing resemblance to the young Hoss, as one reviewer already remarked, writing that “the young actress’s delivery and styling here evoke Petzold’s long-time muse and collaborator Nina Hoss.”9
The film takes full advantage of its lush Mediterranean setting (Marseille), with Hans Fromm’s cinematography creating the most vivid colour palette of any of Petzold’s films to date (the bright blues and greens of Barbara become here even brighter, and warmer, reds, yellows, and blues.) This noticeable expansion of his mise-en-scène’s colour palette visually signals also an expansion of Petzold’s intellectual purview. Having always been one of the most astute diagnosticians of life in Germany in the age of neoliberalism, Petzold leaves Germany with his latest film and allows his critical eye to overtly encompass Europe and its refugee “crisis” (the quotation marks are meant to highlight that the widespread characterisation of the situation as a “crisis” is hardly a politically neutral way of framing the situation). Going in this regard beyond what any of his previous films have accomplished (only one of Transit’s predecessors, Die innere Sicherheit [The State I Am In, 2001], spent significant screen time outside of Germany), he also exceeds the temporal scope of his previous work. While Phoenix took place in the immediate post-World War Two moment and Barbara was set East Germany of 1980, Transit is set in what we might call ahistorical time – a time that combines both the film’s historical present of 2017 and 1942, the year in which the protagonists appear to be stuck for reasons the film never explains. Thus, the characters’ attempt to get to the New World in order to escape the Nazis as they march through occupied France from Paris to the Mediterranean is directly juxtaposed to, because framed by, the present set of circumstances in which refugees from the southern hemisphere seek to escape a contemporary militarised police force that tries to prevent them from entering and creating a new life for themselves in wealthy Europe. Merging Germany and (southern) Europe, the war years of the 1940s and the years of the refugee “crisis” of the present, Transit inhabits an in-between temporality that, in the end, is neither locatable in the 1940s nor in 2017. (It is noteworthy, for example, that we do not see any smart phones being used, an anachronism that, I suspect, Petzold quite purposefully wove into the narrative texture precisely in order to put in abeyance the film’s production circumstances, thereby lending its present-day materiality an air of being otherworldly, of being out-of-time.)
What does all of this merging of past and present, Germany and Europe, Phoenix (and Yella) and Casablanca (Michael Curtiz’s 1942 classic is clearly one of Transit’s film historical narrative backbones, in the same way Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo  functioned for Phoenix’s narrative construct), and Petzold’s biography (he is the son of refugees as well, as his parents, who relocated from East to West Germany, kept returning to their former home to visit family throughout Petzold’s formative years) amount to? Nothing less, I submit, than a unique cinematic narrative mode that creates the conditions of possibility for reimagining ways of thinking through the historical past without treating it as past, the historical present without treating it as present – the contemporary as past and the past as contemporary without facilely suggesting their equivalence. Walter Benjamin’s famous angel of history – which has always been an important point of reference for Petzold – surely is at work in this way of constellating time and space; and the melancholic narrative tone (whether that of the voiceover, spoken by a barkeep who otherwise serves no dramatic function, or that of the protagonists themselves, who mostly seem remarkably resigned to their fate) that infuses the narrative from start to finish resonates with Benjamin’s melancholic (and messianic) understanding of history.
Yet, the film’s final shot of Georg (Franz Rogowski), subtly smiling as he looks up to someone whom we cannot see while sitting in a café biding his time, might be taken to be less tragic than one would imagine the angel of history’s facial expression to be as it finds itself pushed into the future by the relentless force of historical catastrophes piling up at its feet. (At this moment, Georg sits in the same café where he has spent time with Marie, the woman who earlier on repeatedly misrecognised him as her husband. Georg, knowing Marie’s husband has died, ends up assuming his identity and is treated as her husband by the American consulate in charge of granting transit papers, yet Marie, though frequently mistaking him for her husband, ultimately knows that he isn’t: whenever Georg turns toward her in response to her tapping him on the shoulder, thinking he might be her husband, she looks at him confused before walking on, seemingly amazed by the resemblance she might feel exists between the two men.) Indeed, whereas Casablanca ends with Ilsa leaving Rick, Transit’s ending is considerably more ambiguous. It leaves the possibility open that Marie did not make it onto the boat to America after all (which we learn quickly sank as it crossed a mine, killing all passengers) and instead returns to the café where she finds Georg waiting in the very limbo both of them have been sharing and from which, perhaps, they might be able to escape together by restarting their lives in a renewed Europe – conceived as a utopian space that is both no-where and now-here, as Petzold’s films often render his characters’ (utopian) desire for Heimat-Building.10
In this regard, Transit both plays with and exceeds one last time the very genre conventions with which it has played throughout, often catering to our expectations while nevertheless frequently catching us off-guard by deviating from them. And in the end it is precisely the film’s generic backbone (and the central narrative’s daring conceit that can arguably function only in a genre-film context) – both its very timelessness and its meticulous material specificity – that enables Petzold to succeed at what so many German films at this year’s Berlinale (and beyond) failed to do: namely, to engage the present historically and the historical past from the point of view, which is to say: the stakes, of the present (if not of our future). We might think of this through the conceptual lens of Benjamin’s dialectical image, which Transit’s final shot embodies; we might also think of this particular and peculiar staging of the relationship between past, present, and future – and the condition of possibility it opens up for engaging the present as well as the past – through the lens offered by Gilles Deleuze’s Bergson-inflected understanding of temporality, where the present is nothing but a simultaneous split into past and future, where all three temporalities are always co-present to one another, and where the question is always how to actualise the virtual, that is: how to intensify the cloudy present moment so that its historical qualities can be brought to act on it for a better, sunnier time to come.
Berlinale – Berlin International Film Festival
15-25 February 2018
Festival website: https://www.berlinale.de
- See http://www.critic.de/special/verdrehte-fakten-fuer-die-berlinale-debatte-4158/ for a claim-by-claim rebuttal of the Blickpunkt Film article. Der Spiegel attacked Hochhäusler in its 9 February 2018 issue, and it first published the letter here: http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/kino/berlinale-79-filmemacher-zetteln-revolution-bei-nachfolge-von-dieter-kosslick-an-a-1179832.html. Variety reported on the letter: http://variety.com/2017/film/news/german-directors-call-overhaul-berlinale-dieter-kosslick-1202622600/. ↩
- For a brief discussion of these films, see my “A Few Notes on German Cinema at the 67th Berlin Film Festival,” Senses of Cinema 82 (March 2017), http://sensesofcinema.com/2017/festival-reports/berlinale-2017-abel/. ↩
- Berlin School films that played in the Competition include Grisebach’s Sehnsucht (Longing, 2006); Petzold’s Yella (2007), Barbara (2012), and Transit (2018); Ade’s Alle Anderen (Everyone Else, 2009); Heisenberg’s Der Räuber (The Robber, 2010); and Arslan’s Gold (2013) and Helle Nächte (Bright Lights, 2017). A number of these films won awards. ↩
- For my take on this attack, see Marco Abel, “22 January 2007: German Film Establishment Attacks ‘Berlin School’ As Wrong Kind of National Cinema” in Jennifer Kapczynski and Michael Richardson (eds), A New History of German Cinema, Camden House, Rochester, 2012, pp. 602-608. ↩
- I thank Joy Castro who coined this term after the film’s screening on 17 February 2018. ↩
- Of course, budgets play a role as well; and whether or not it is even appropriate to call the German film industry an “industry” is up for debate, given German film production’s dependency on a state-funded and television-dependent film subsidy system. ↩
- Between 1955 and 1957, Schneider starred as a teenager in a wildly successful trilogy of films about Empress Elisabeth of Austria—films that generations of German television viewers grew up on watching well past Schneider’s untimely death in 1982. ↩
- For more on Grisebach’s film, see, for example, James Lattimer, “At the Frontier: Valeska Grisebach on Western,” Cinema Scope 71, http://cinema-scope.com/spotlight/at-the-frontier-valeska-grisebach-on-western/. ↩
- Guy Lodge, Review of Transit, Variety 17 February 2018, http://variety.com/2018/film/reviews/transit-review-berlinale-2018-1202703291/. See also Daniel Kasman’s interview with the director in which he expresses the same sentiment. “A Citizen without Civilization: Christian Petzold Discusses ‘Transit’,” MUBI 25 February 2018, https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/a-citizen-without-civilization-christian-petzold-discusses-transit. In this context it is worth noting that Beer’s Marie wears a red shirt that inevitably recalls Nina Hoss’ Yella wearing a red shirt throughout the film. ↩
- For more on this, see my chapter “Christian Petzold: Heimat-Building as Utopia” in my book, The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School, Camden House, Rochester, 2013, pp. 69-110. ↩