Christian Petzold seems to realize that viewers are going to feel as if they’ll need a few moments to get their bearings in the world of Transit. In one swift and brilliant stroke, he denies us the luxury. Georg (Franz Rogowski) enters a café from the sun-seared streets of present-day Paris, meets up with a contact, and the two of them plunge headlong into a hushed and urgent discussion of transit papers, visas, and passports, sounding for all the world like Rick, Ilsa, and Victor in Casablanca (1942).
Georg, we learn, as we strain to keep up, is a German refugee who’s spent time in a camp run by the fascists who are now on the verge of taking the French capital. His mission, should he choose to accept it—he does—is to get a collection of documents guaranteeing safe passage to a famous author, Weidel, in Marseille. Transit is based on the eponymous novel by Anna Seghers, written in 1942, when the proverbial lights were going out all over Europe. But as the graffiti on the walls, the cars, the clothes, and every other possible indicator blare as loudly as the police sirens sweeping up and down the Parisian streets, the events of this movie are happening right now.
The conceit is daring, not least because, as a statement, it’s almost too obvious. But from that first handoff in the café, through a chase on foot, followed by a tense train journey, Petzold leaves us no time to object. By the time Georg arrives in Marseille, we’ve learned—and learned to accept—the rules and parameters of this nightmare. And once these suspenseful sequences have begun to ratchet down, Petzold shifts modes—to melodrama. With one fellow resister arrested back in Paris, and another having died en route to Marseille, Georg sets about saving his own skin. He takes on an identity that’s going to present an emotionally devastating dilemma when he falls for young Marie (Paula Beer).
Like Casablanca’s Casablanca, Transit’s Marseille is a limbo in which the clock is ticking on every reprieve from fear, every small pleasure. Word spreads that the fascists have taken Avignon. It won’t be long now. And as in Rick's Café Américain, we see the same set of characters weaving in and out of the narrative, all plotting to make their escape, and nearly every one of them with a story or two to tell of how he or she practically had one foot on the boat when something yanked them back into the port city. Baked in persistent, almost oppressive sunlight, Marseille doesn’t look haunted, and yet, particularly in a fleeting tease toward the end, Petzold suggests here and there that the reality of Transit may be as ephemeral as his command of cinematic storytelling remains, as ever, masterful.
The café in Seoul in which much of Hong Sangsoo’s Grass takes place isn’t, in the strictest sense, haunted, but death, desperation, and anger weigh heavily in this black and white, sixty-six-minute feature, Hong’s twenty-second. Grass opens with a conversation between a woman and a man that takes a deep dive when she accuses him of refusing to recognize his responsibility for the suicide of one of their friends. Moments later, she’s taken on some of that burden herself as well.
Eventually we become aware of the presence of Areum (Kim Minhee) at a corner table, making little effort to disguise the fact that she’s eavesdropping as she taps away on her laptop. We hear her thoughts in voiceover narration, suggesting that she may be conjuring these café visitors in her imagination and writing their dialogue on virtual pages. Another table, another accusation of causing another suicide. But then Areum up and leaves with her brother and fiancé to wander to another café where she berates them for rushing into marriage. Back at the first café, she—reluctantly at first—joins a table to mingle with drinkers who, again, may or may not be her own creations.
Grass raises countless engaging questions (see below). It feels as if it takes place over the course of a single afternoon and evening, but out in front of the café, a pot with young sprouts is shown in a later shot to be flourishing with full-grown leaves. I’ll freely admit to being both stumped and captivated by this latest collaboration between Hong and Kim, a project that seems to be growing darker with each new chapter.
One of the highlights of this year’s Berlinale so far is the Forum’s presentation of a newly restored 35 mm print (from the original 16 mm) of James Benning’s 11 x 14 (1977). A certain degree of mathematical thinking has gone into its construction, and you can read about what Benning was up to back then at Light Industry, which presented 11 x 14 in 2012.
None of that was on my mind as I luxuriated in the vibrant grain. Those, like me, who’ve been familiar only with Benning’s later work may be surprised by how entertaining and, at times, even funny 11 x 14 is. It can be viewed as a series of one-shot vignettes with recurring characters and revisited locations, each throwing a new perspective on the ones that preceded it. Dialogue is rare, muffled, and all but indecipherable, but that doesn’t mean 11 x 14 isn’t a film to listen to as well as admire for its framing and composition. There’s the roar of an approaching airliner, the insect ambience of an open field, the whooshing of cars (this would be a fine addition to a program of road movies), and, at one point, Bob Dylan’s “Black Diamond Bay” (1976, 7’31”), played in full in a “scene” that shows us, in a lower corner, the vinyl revolving. More scenes come and go before a surprise encore of “Black Diamond Bay,” again in full, and it’s up to you to decide whether the accompanying visual is intended as a punchline.
What Others Are Saying
For Variety’s Guy Lodge, Petzold’s “extraordinary anti-historical experiment . . . registers as his most conceptually daring film to date. . . . Transit invites viewers to trace their own speculative connections between Seghers’s narrative and the contemporary rise in neo-Nazism and anti-refugee sentiment, all while its surtext remains achingly moving.”
“These characters never become more than ciphers for some abstract horror, their humanity only bubbling to the surface when the narrator (the local bartender, of course) begins to describe his memory of them,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich. “It’s only during these brief moments that we can fully appreciate Georg’s disarray or the contours of Marie’s crisis.”
“Intense and mesmerizing German up-and-comer Rogowski is perfectly cast as Georg, who’s enigmatic and fascinating in equal measure,” writes Boyd van Hoeij in the Hollywood Reporter. “The awesomely named Lilien Batman plays a small but crucial role as soccer-fanatic child who’s befriended by Georg in the film's most beguiling moments. Cinematographer Hans Fromm, production designer K.D. Gruber, both Petzold regulars, and costume designer Katharina Ost together create a world that’s contemporary but with an edge of timeless.”
More from Demetrios Matheou in Screen.
Updates: “Transit is perhaps the best World War II film since Paul Verhoeven's Black Book, even if it hinges on a suspension of disbelief that'll be too far a stretch for some,” writes Steve Macfarlane for Slant. “It's sleek and confident in the same Hitchcockian mold as Petzold's 2015 film Phoenix, which the filmmaker co-wrote with the late, great film-essayist Harun Farocki, who shared Petzold's obsession with Seghers's source material, and collaborated on early drafts of this film's screenplay. And Transit is understandably dedicated to Farocki.”
“Petzold is no stranger to telling stories that flesh their skeletons out on a need-to-know basis,” writes Michael Pattinson at RogerEbert.com, “but here the suggestive, sun-drenched delirium takes on almost abstract qualities. It feels like an apocalyptic allegory, and yet the fiction is far from fanciful.”
“It’s an engrossing, uncanny, and somewhat disturbing film,” finds Ed Frankl at the Film Stage.
At Cineuropa, Bénédicte Prot grants that “there is the potential for suspense here, but the days go by according to the same routine, we visit the same old places, and the voice-over narration that describes the various paths taken by the characters only ends up flattening them.”
Updates, 2/22: “Symbolic ghosts, liminal spaces and fluid identities are recurrent motifs in Petzold’s oeuvre and here they are brought together in an overwhelmingly sad meditation on the repeated moral failures that make up the history of refugees in Europe,” writes Giovanni Marchini Camia for Sight & Sound. “This sadness accumulates into a potent plea for genuine, collective introspection and a concomitant change of course, underlined by the lyrics of the Talking Heads song that accompany the closing credits: ‘Well we know where we’re going / But we don’t know, where we’ve been . . .’”
“Petzold packs in whole volumes of references, sliced and diced and shiftingly assembled into a postmodern Magic-Eye mosaic that is beautiful and clever, but coldly elusive to the point of outright frustration at times,” writes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist.
“As the decade that saw him make a defining leap in his career draws to a close, there’s something comforting in witnessing the consistency and sustained quality of his work distilled into what is possibly his highest achievement,” writes Tommaso Tocci for the International Cinephile Society.
Writing for the Berlin Film Journal, David Perrin finds that “there are certain moments in the film that are so unexpected that the viewer sits up in his seat and begins to see differently.”
For Ioncinema’s Nicholas Bell, Transit is “a rather discombobulating experience for several reasons—and structurally perhaps best succeeds in presenting the actual condition implied by its title, a state of constant flux, instability, and foreboding.”
Jutta Brendemuhl for Vague Visages: “What could have ended up as a jarring Brechtian alienation film has the strikingly opposite effect: one of familiarization, of humanization, of transfer.”
At CineVue, Patrick Gamble argues that “Petzold struggles to keep hold of the reigns, wielding the effects of melodrama with little to no precision or psychological acuity, and leaving the essential romance at the heart of the story to be rendered almost entirely unbelievable.”
Update, 2/25: “You know in the structuralist theory,” Petzold tells Notebook editor Daniel Kasman, “there are two words: the one is metaphor and the other is metonym. The metaphor means one over the other, and metonym, one beside each other. I think history is not just [layers hands on top of one another] over and over and over, it is also something where in the same time you have the old and the new things together. You have the subjective and the objective in the same moment: this conception I try to bring into Transit, and also in the skills we used making it: all camera positions, all departments are working with this theory.”
Update, 3/1: For Film Comment, Jordan Cronk talks with Petzold about “his strange history with Seghers’s novel, his conceptual approach to genre, and his relationship with Harun Farocki, his writing partner (Phoenix, Barbara, The State I Am In), to whom Transit is dedicated.”
Update, 3/18: For the Film Stage, Zhuo-Ning Su talks with Petzold “about commenting on the refugee crisis without making it the message, why he doesn’t deceive his audiences, the brilliance of The Sopranos, Harun Farocki, and more.”
“Kim Minhee’s eavesdropper . . . realizes multiple times . . . that many of the people she’s eyeing are in fact professional actors, calling into doubt, as is so deliciously common in this director’s films, just what it is we’re seeing,” writes Notebook editor Daniel Kasman. “Is this a dream? Imagination? Fantasy? A wake? A brief but truly unexpected use of lens focus and shadowplay, for this usually formally minimalist director, ripples with such uncertainty. Whatever state of existence Grass is taking place on, one thing is for certain: It’s Hongian playfulness of surprisingly soulful intrigue.”
“And we can further wonder if this Areum is the same Areum, also an aspiring writer played by Kim Minhee, who appeared in Hong’s 2017 The Day After,” notes Jessica Kiang in Variety. “If so, would that make Grass a sequel or a prequel in the Hong Cinematic Universe?”
Updates: “I mean it as no criticism when I say this newest work feels like the outcome of Hong stitching together outtakes from other films: it’s to his credit, in fact, that Grass layers its emotional interplays so cohesively.” Michael Pattinson for RogerEbert.com: “Working again with cinematographer Kim Hyungkoo, Hong shoots in sharp monochrome: there’s more than a touch, I think, of Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad (1961), still the go-to cinematic benchmark for fluid temporalities.”
At the Playlist, Bradley Warren suggests that “this brief-but-dense feature is likely to challenge more recent fans of Hong Sangsoo while it harkens back to the more opaque quality of his earlier work.”
Updates, 2/22: At the Film Stage, Rory O’Connor finds that “there is a newfound saltiness to how [Kim’s] character deals with the men who surround her, often meeting their groveling advances with a bemused dismissiveness that makes them look all the more foolish.”
Update, 2/23: IndieWire’s David Ehrlich: “The Day After hinges on the question: ‘Can words ever capture reality?’ Grass answers that question with another question: ‘Can anything?’ Much less consistently enjoyable than many Hong films twice its length, Grass compensates for its dramatic slackness and deviant sobriety by honing in on the ideas that its director’s work often skirts around.”
Update, 3/7: “As is usual for Hong,” writes Dan Sullivan for Film Comment, “the ostensible formal simplicity and raw emotions of Grass deliberately run interference on our perception of the rather complicated narrative dance being undertaken, an episodic structure that suggests its multiple threads are taking shape simultaneously while also slyly undermining its own relationship with temporality. A chronology is suggested, but do we believe in it? Or is the café some kind of Sartrean waiting room, its residents sitting, talking, fighting, escaping from their lives outside?”
Update, 3/24: “We can see that the public thrashing Hong and Kim took over their affair is still very much on the filmmaker’s mind,” writes Michael Sicinski. “But here, he is spreading the shame and recrimination out over Korean cafe / intellectual culture like a virus, one that may or may not be emanating from Kim herself. Is this revenge? Or is she the true source of a bitterness that has poisoned the bourgeois well from which Hong so often imbibes his content?”
11 x 14
The Forum’s put together a fine collection of notes and reviews.
Update, 2/27: The Austrian Film Museum has posted an audio recording of a 1977 Q&A session with Benning conducted when the Forum presented 11 x 14 that summer (57’08”). The Museum has also released 11 x 14 on DVD.
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