The following essay was produced as part of the 2018 NYFF Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring film critics that took place during the 56th edition of the New York Film Festival.
Migration is one of the political flashpoints that vexes the Western world. Several films at this year’s New York Film Festival similarly grappled with humans (among other species) moving across continents, crossing borders, and occupying liminal spaces. Films like “Cold War,” “Transit,” and “Border” explore the forces that compel people to migrate, articulate migrants’ experiences with alienation, and depict their efforts to transcend human-made boundaries.
Christian Petzold’s “Transit” draws on a well-trod migrant narrative, the refugee’s escape, to render a startlingly current portrait of the hell that refugees endure. “Transit” updates Anna Segher’s World War II-era escape novel to (what appears to be) contemporary France, where a a concentration camp survivor named Georg (Franz Rogowski) happens upon the body of a famous dead writer as he trees to flee a besieged Paris. Assuming the writer’s identity (and promised exit visa), Georg manages to escape to Marseille, where he must secure the U.S. transit visa needed to ensure his passage to Mexico.
Here in this sunny Riviera city, he must wait in bureaucratic purgatory with other refugees hoping to escape the advancing Fascists, among them the writer’s unaware wife, Marie. But within this desperate lot, some are better situated than others. In this atemporal retelling, Petzold introduces an undocumented Maghrebi mother and son into the story, and the presence of such explicitly “modern” migrants — the kind that has fueled the rising tide of nationalism in Europe — links the older and newer forms of bigotry that have beset the continent. Unbound from the shackles of any particular era, Petzold’s restrained portrait of suffering shows that persecution and escape have always been part of the human tapestry of Europe.
One part of this tapestry is the fate of post-war Poland, which became a Soviet satellite state after its destruction in the Second World War. This is the initial setting of Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” which centers on the love affair between two Polish musicians, both of whom are based on the filmmaker’s parents. The pair first meet when Zula (Joanna Kulig) auditions for the Polish folk troupe that Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) helps to run. When Wiktor decides to defect to the West on a trip to Berlin, Zula chooses to stay behind in Poland. Over the next decade the lovers have a series of crucial reunions in Paris, where Wiktor settles.
Petzold and Pawlikowski, through their own visual styles, both arrive at a similar insight on the enforced “normalcy” of repressive states. “Transits’” crisply photographed scenes, which often bear a close resemblance to the raids and forced separations of recent times, are all the more discomforting for what occurs in the background. Petzold’s use of widescreen Cinemascope allows us to spot people jogging, sight-seeing, or having casual meals as violent raids occur. Such composition underscores the apparent willingness of bystanders to go about their normal lives as atrocities are inflicted upon the persecuted, or worse, to encourage such acts. Through his use of the compressed Academy ratio, Pawlikowski subtly depicts the increasing repression that forces Wiktor to flee Poland. The troupe is pressured to make their performances more propagandistic, and with a colossal portrait of Stalin as a backdrop, they perform to crowds of nameless masses that the Party hopes to shape into a conforming populace.
It is not surprising then that music becomes a proxy battle of sorts between the dueling lovers. At the beginning of the film, Wiktor gleans a folk song, “Dwa serduszka,” during his travels through rural Poland and turns it into a mainstay for the troupe. When Wiktor and Zula are later trying to make a record in Paris, he reworks the song into a hauntingly beautiful jazz number for Zula. The song becomes the potent distillation of the couple’s tempestuous relationship. Kulig’s sublime performance reveals the depths of Zula’s passion, as well as that of her doubt.
When Zula begrudgingly records a boring, “metaphor” laden French version that Wiktor’s part-time lover Juliette translates, it is the beginning of the end for the duo’s Parisian experiment. Wiktor has become part of the metropolitan intelligentsia, which vexes Zula. She’s even more irked by how her Polishness is seen as a curiosity by Wiktor’s crowd. When Juliette blithely remarks how strange Paris’s modern amenities must seem to Zula, who has by this point already travelled through the West, Zula quips that her life was better in Poland. No one’s tragic émigré, Zula is quite content with life in Communist Poland. Much like her song, a French makeover simply won’t work. Zula’s refusal to ingratiate herself with Paris, and Wiktor’s new life, subverts the notion that all those behind the Iron Curtain were desperate to peek through it.
Ali Abassi’s “Border” similarly articulates the issues of alienation and belonging that vex those who live in between worlds. “Border” centers on a lonely customs agent, Tina (Eva Melander), whose keen sense of smell allows her to sniff out contraband at the port she works at. The arrival of a strange passenger named Vore (Eero Milonoff), unnerves and attracts her. They embark on a relationship that awakens her dormant sexuality, and unravels long-held truths about herself. Tina learns that they are trolls, a species that has been persecuted by humans and forced to either flee to isolated redoubts in Finland–or assimilate.
The film is a genre project that also doubles as an insightful story about assimilation and the concept of “passing.” For decades, Tina had been unknowingly living as a human, and had acquired all of its mundane trappings: a home, a boyfriend, and a job. Vore disdains Tina’s integration into human society, and reveals his violent desire to exact revenge on them. Despite the pain humans have inflicted on her, Tina has a much deeper reservoir of empathy, and in a Nordic noir style subplot, races to stop Vore’s sinister conspiracy. Tina ultimately arrives at a decision that is neither outright assimilation, nor Vore’s more separatist path. She defies this binary to create a new identity for herself.
In a similar way, Abassi has been able to draw on his own status as an outsider to elucidate the internal conflicts of those living on and across a metaphysical border. As an Iranian born director who has been making films in Scandinavia, Abbasi noted in the film’s Cannes press notes that in making “Border,” his Iranian upbringing was an advantage since “[w]e are more interested in things we don’t see…We see hidden patterns and motives at work all the time…And paradoxically film may be the best way to treat and approach the things you don’t see, to show the invisible.” One hopes that more directors from underrepresented backgrounds will get a chance to trenchantly explore these fault lines.
In an era of rising nationalism and nativism, these films demonstrate that current flare-ups over borders, refugees, and identity are nothing new. Projects like “Transit” and “Cold War” are efforts by European directors to confront the continent’s history, and to people this history with human stories of suffering, love, and exile. But “Border” also shows us that cinema stands to benefit from allowing voices from outside or marginalized perspectives to interrogate the very boundaries that some insist on hardening.