- Demetrios Matheou
- 12 August 2019
Elegantly shot and fascinating refugee drama from German director Christian Petzold
With Nazi troops entering Paris, a German refugee, Georg, flees for Marseille. By chance, he's in possession of papers belonging to a writer, Weidel, who has just committed suicide; these include a letter from the Mexican Embassy assuring a visa, transit papers and a boat ticket to safety. Since only those refugees who can prove they're able to leave Marseilles are allowed into the port town in the first place, Georg assumes Weidel's identity.
While awaiting his passage, Georg (played by charismatic, Joaquin Phoenix-alike Franz Rogowski) meets the mysterious Marie (Paula Beer) and falls in love. The problem is, she's Weidel's wife. He determines to take her with him, without revealing his deceit.
If the premise for Anna Seghers' 1942 novel isn't intriguing enough, German director Christian Petzold lends it a twist and considerable resonance by setting the action in the present day and stripping away most of the WWII context. Now and then a word is dropped into dialogue to remind us of what's at stake – 'fascist', 'cleansing', 'camps' – but there are no soldiers or tanks, only police and the constant sound of sirens.
The result is an extremely unusual drama, out of time, which captures the terrible limbo in which refugees find themselves, whatever the conflicts that created them. Georg, who it's inferred has escaped from a concentration camp, encounters both Europeans desperately hoping for their own transit papers, and Africans who don't even have that possibility. When the German opens a door to a room full of frightened African families, the frisson of common trauma is astonishing.
Petzold is one of today's most coolly cerebral directors, whose films feature characters wrestling with questions of identity amid reunification (Yella), Cold War (Barbara) and global conflict (Phoenix). While he lacks the interest to fully exploit this love story's emotional possibilities – this plays more like Kafka than Casablanca – it remains another elegantly shot, fascinating and thought-provoking experience.
Limited release from Fri 16 Aug.