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  • Writer's pictureoliverjlwebb

Christian Petzold’s Love in Times of Oppressive Systems Trilogy

Nina Hoss in Barbara (2012) : Courtesy of Piffl Medien

Christian Petzold’s trilogy, (aptly named by Petzold himself), consisting of Barbara (2012), Phoenix (2014) and Transit (2018), captures the essence of love in times of oppressive systems. Oliver Webb, Alex Harper and Corey McKinney share their thoughts on their favourite film from the trilogy.

Barbara (2012) – Oliver Webb

Nina Hoss in Barbara (2012) : Courtesy of Piffl Medien

The first film in Petzold’s love in times of oppressive systems trilogy, Barbara is a poignant portrayal of 1980s East Germany. Barbara follows a Berlin doctor who is banished to a small country hospital for her attempt to flee to the West. Frustrated with her new life, Barbara grows anxious of her new colleagues, fearful that they might be Stasi informants. Petzold masterfully captures the vigorous routines and checks that citizens had to endure in a harrowing time of paranoia and uncertainty. Portrayed by the excellent Nina Hoss, Barbara refuses to conform to the strict laws of the GDR and secretly plots her escape to the West.

Beautifully shot by Petzold’s long-time collaborator Hans Fromm, Fromm’s cinematography paints the GDR in colourful hues, colours which are almost non-existent in films previously depicting the GDR. As opposed to grey and dark undertones we see a GDR represented by a bright colour palette, with its surrounding forest landscapes echoed in greens and yellows. Although living in an oppressive society there is still beauty beneath the surface. A beauty that is so wonderfully captured in Petzold’s masterpiece about the ugliness of oppressive times.

Phoenix (2014) – Alex Harper

Phoenix: Courtesy of Soda Pictures

Phoenix should be an impossible film. To qualify that, it is necessary to share the bones of the story. Set in the aftermath of the Second World War, a Jewish woman and Holocaust survivor (Nina Hoss), who's face has been disfigured during her time in a concentration camp, returns home to Germany. Against her surgeons suggestions, she asks for her face to be reconstructed to resemble her own, before the injuries. The results don’t match, she doesn’t look like her old self, but is reminiscent. A replica. When she sees her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) again, he doesn’t recognise her. But he picks up on the similarity. He tells her of his dead wife and his in-laws inheritance fortune, and proposes a plan. Pretend to be my wife, and we’ll split the money. It’s okay, I’ll teach you how to be just like her.

It sounds overly complicated, totally preposterous, yet the end result couldn’t be further from that description. Both a thoughtful allegory on how trauma changes people, and an incisive character piece, grounded by Hoss’s powerful, deft—and frankly, perfect—performance. A woman is taught to be herself again after irrevocable change, from the perceptions and experiences of a man who’s motivations aren’t noble. It’s a subtle, slow-burn of a film; a modern (yet period) noir, a personal-identity heist film.

I have a mental list of films with perfect endings, ones that distil the story into one blinding and clarifying scene: Phoenix sits pride of place at number one (apologies go to Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire; a clear but distant second). Petzold delivers contra to what form and reason should dictate: forget resolution, end exactly on the climax. It’s difficult to do that adequately. It’s impossible to do that as well as Phoenix. Speak Low.

Transit (2018) – Corey McKinney

Transit: Courtesy of Piffl Medien

“Who forgets faster, the abandoned or the one who left him?”

Christian Petzold’s 2018 History warping Drama takes a story from WWII and shifts it to present day, throwing us into this strange modern situation of a foreign invasion and the refugees trying to flee. Transit follows Georg (Franz Rogowski) who has fled to Marseille in a hope of escaping occupied France. In his possession he holds the papers of late author ‘Weidel’, including visas and passports that could see Georg safely leave the country.

As Georg assumes the identity of the successful writer, he meets the mysterious Marie, whom he falls in love with and plans to flee with her by his side. Marie however, is with a man called Richard who holds the key to her own escape, and she must decide whether to follow her heart or the easy route to safety.

Franz Rogowski, who I first watched in Victoria (2015), is a revelation. He floats through the Marseille streets with a Bogart-esque cool, bringing a quiet intensity to each interaction. Whether it’s as a surrogate father figure to young Driss, friend in need for Richard, or secret lover for Marie, Rogowski’s ‘Georg’ treats each character with a deep sense of care and consideration. Paula Beer, who I watched for the first time in Transit, is equally mysterious and mystifying. Both Rogowski and Beer play off each other in unison, their chemistry is electric in every scene and their love affair adds an ounce of realism to the allegorical narrative.

Transit was up there as one of my most memorable films watched during the lockdown in 2020.

The World War II take on a refugee story set in present day was really intriguing, the films transient quality was welcoming and the performances of Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer elevated the film to one of my all time favourite romance movies.

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