I wasn’t expecting to be charmed by Christian Petzold’s inventive rethinking of a well-worn World War II movie trope. To all intents and purposes, it is a period drama akin to Casablanca, complete with third-person narration, a mysterious dame and uniformed guards with dogs. However, the backdrop is inexplicably and unapologetically modern day France.
Georg (Franz Rogowski) is asked by a friend to deliver two letters to a writer who is hiding in a Paris hotel, about to flee before an imminent invasion by an unnamed army. Georg finds the writer dead and reads his letters. They are from his wife and from the Mexican consulate with details of his visa and passage to Mexico. Both are waiting for him in Marseille.
Georg is an honest guy though and he takes the letters and the writer’s last manuscript with him to Marseille, intending to give them to someone, and narrowly escapes capture. At the consulate, a mistaken identity sees him with a way to escape, complicated only when he crosses paths with the beautiful wife, Marie (Paula Beer).
Oddly, it all works. After initially trying to work out the narrative logic – who is the invading force and who has to escape and why? – I gave up as it isn’t really important. Like anywhere on the brink of war, freedom and autonomy is a tenuous and arbitrary thing. For Georg and Marie, it is all about who you know and what you are prepared to do to survive.
Although set in contemporary times, everything else is old world, from the clothes to the lack of technology other than cars and radios. Not only does this echo the world of 60 years ago, it likens the experiences of the protagonists with those of refugees today in less developed nations. It also reduces the complexity of the situation into something much more essential and universal.
Rogowski is a good lead and he encapsulates well the ordinariness of Georg and his frailties. All of the other characters are less-developed, partly due to the narration, which we discover is by the bartender of the cafe Georg frequents and so keeps the narrative essentially through his, purely observational, gaze. It is also because these characters are primarily motivators or hindrances to Georg’s journey and so are mainly important in terms of what they represent.
For a film about the crisis of refugees fleeing war-torn countries, it is a softer version than others. You’ll be so swept up in the romance and tension of the story that you’ll forget until the delightful, closing credits soundtrack, that Georg could easily be you.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.