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Christian Petzold’s Serious Music

By Jackson Arn.

Transit (2018), by Christian Petzold

What went wrong?—the question, wrenching and unanswerable, echoes through the work of the German director Christian Petzold. Even in his student films from the 1990s he seemed to be asking this of each one of his bitter, remorseful characters, and in his mature 21st-century films, he seems to pose the same question of his country: from Dachau to Baader-Meinhof, from the Iron Curtain to the disillusionment of reunification, what went wrong? Taken together, his films suggest some of the ways that Germans, and Germany, have gotten by without an answer: denial, delusion, abjection, paranoia, sex, revenge, and—not the least hazardous of these—music.

Transit, Petzold’s thirteenth feature film, ends in a reunion; or rather it ends, Creation of Adam-like, in the nanosecond before that reunion; or at least it seems to end this way.

Georg, a German refugee, has been trapped in Marseille—not the resort version that reeks of spliffs and tanning lotion, but something closer to the bright, joyless place Camus imagined in The Stranger, where the people are all deeply alone even when they travel in big packs—but now he’s about to escape. By impersonating a dead writer named Weidel, he’s obtained documents of transit into Mexico; his ship leaves in less than an hour. He decides to stay behind. He’s been seeing a woman named Marie, who’s also secured, with his help, a place on the ship. Marie, he’s come to realize, is Weidel’s widow, and he can’t summon the courage to tell her the truth. So he sits in his favorite bar and imagines her standing on the deck, slowly drifting away from him.

The ship never leaves the harbor. A mine explodes, and everyone onboard drowns. But perhaps Marie, like Georg, chose not to go to Mexico in the end? Suddenly, somebody walks into the bar—we can’t see who it is, but Georg can. He smiles. And then, the song:

Well we know where we’re going

But we don’t know where we’ve been

And we know what we’re knowing

But we can’t say what we’ve seen

And we’re not little children

And we know what we want

And the future is certain

Give us time to work it out

A simple melody the first time you hear it, practically childish nonsense, hardly the preamble you’d expect for something called “Road to Nowhere.” “Kind of tacked on,” recalled David Byrne not long after he wrote the tune in 1984. The first lines, organized around singsong sets of opposites, wouldn’t be out of place in Mother Goose. But when the chorus hits the word seen, the melody darkens, and you can sense in the D-sharp chord an agony lurking just out of view. No, these aren’t children—they’ve endured too much to be children ever again. The ellipsis fits the tone of Transit perfectly—Transit, which kicks off with a bloody suicide the audience never actually sees; Transit, directed by Christian Petzold, in whose films the worst is always beyond the characters’ control because it has happened already.

Then, as abruptly as it showed its ugly face, the minor key retreats, never to be heard again. In its place, an E, possibly the most glorious chord in all of pop music—a dirty, jagged sound, made out of a million little moans and whines and wails glued together like a kid’s science fair project. It’s the musical equivalent of the words we’ve just heard the chorus sing—uncertainty and disillusionment and trauma converted into optimism through sheer force of will, as if by a jolt of electricity.

For moviegoers of a certain age, Transit’s use of “Road to Nowhere” may conjure up memories of the era of the song’s composition—the era of Talking Heads’ commercial peak (1983’s “Burning Down the House” was their only Top 10 hit in the U.S.), which also happened to be the approximate era of the NEA culture wars, the AIDS and crack epidemics, the Challenger explosion, Iran-Contra, and, sitting ribbon-like atop a mound of excrement, Ronald Reagan’s insistence that this was morning in America. “Road to Nowhere” reminds me of nothing so much as an endless, joyous karaoke night in Tokyo a few years back, when my brother and his wife joined me in singing between slurps of Suntory. They had just gotten married. They didn’t know where they were going to live, or what they were going to do for money, or when they’d be able to start a family. As we sang together, I remember thinking that they didn’t seem worried.

This song manages to achieve the impossible—to be cheerful in the face of apocalypse. You can hear the exertion, too: here, as in many of his other performances, you sense that David Byrne is afraid he’ll lose his nerve, he’ll collapse into a whimpering ball if he lets up for even a second. But that same strained exertion is also what gives his performance its boundless charisma. His cheer may be as foolish as that of Reagan’s TV spots, but Byrne at least gives us a taste of the horrors he’s responding to. He’s too good an artist, and too inept a politician, to sweep them under the rug.

Blues music, more than a few people have pointed out, is fundamentally optimistic: the musician acts out tragedy as a way of escaping tragedy, and the sadder the song, the happier the act of singing. “Road to Nowhere” attempts something similar but more reckless—resigned to fate, Byrne embraces tragedy, squeezes the apocalypse tight, plants a big, wet kiss on its lips:

There’s a city in my mind

Come along and take that ride

And it’s alright, baby, it’s all right

And it’s very far away

But it’s growing day by day and it’s all right

Baby, it’s all right

Recently I learned that the Saul Bellow wanted to die wide-awake, since “death is such a crucial experience [I] wouldn’t want to miss it.” There’s something of Bellow’s wit in “Road to Nowhere,” and in the final moments of Transit. Georg knows he’s bound to be arrested and thrown into a concentration camp, knows but seems not to care. Maybe he’s been in Limbo so long he doesn’t mind being dragged deeper into Hell, and Heaven may be overrated, anyway (“a place where nothing ever happens,” to crib from another Heads tune). Earlier this year, Petzold told an interviewer that his new film was part of a trilogy about “love in times of oppressive systems.” Transit concludes with two leaps of faith—first, Georg’s and then, one imagines, Marie’s—that might sum up what it means to be in love in apocalyptic times. “Road to Nowhere” is Transit’s theme song, the theme song for the brave, daft love the film dramatizes.

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It took a recent retrospective of Petzold’s work at Lincoln Center in New York to convince me that he’s the most ingenious manipulator of pop music currently working in cinema. To think back on his oeuvre is to recall, measure for measure, the songs, and to be unable to remember how they sounded before you’d seen his work: “What the World Needs Now is Love” from Something to Remind Me (2001); “Speak Low” from Phoenix (2014); “Road to Cairo” from Yella (2007); the Julie London version of “Cry Me a River” from Beats Being Dead (2011); Sinatra’s take on “Moon River” from Pilots (1995).

These songs are rarely heard more than twice; there isn’t much music of any kind in Petzold’s films, actually. But when music does show up, the occasion is never trivial—it never just plays, it rises from the silence, somehow surprising and inevitable-seeming at the same time. In these moments, Petzold’s musical choices offer the charm of improvisation as well as the appropriateness and correctness that come with careful planning—A and not A too. On the last page of To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf comes close to defining this contradiction as the essence of great art:

She looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the center. It was done; it was finished.

Abrupt yet inevitable, effortless yet exhaustively rehearsed, A yet not A: contemporary art cinema abounds in these sorts of moments. A decent list might include the ending of Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, with its crazed, Corona-scored dance; the murder Daniel Plainview commits right before the end credits of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood; the curt, brutal acts that show up in various Michael Haneke films like mud splattered on a white dress; more recently, the levitation scene in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed and the climactic stabbing in Lee Chang-Dong’s otherwise glacial Burning.

Looking over this list, it’s easy enough to see the strings—most of the films I named end with some jarring act of violence by a previously subdued character. Some of the scenes “work” and others don’t—and it’s the risk of failure, at least in part, that gives the most successful of these scenes their power. But thanks to Haneke, Anderson, et al., the last-minute, go-for-broke narrative gambit has congealed into cliché, as dully predictable as the third-act happily-ever-after that pretty much all art cinema proudly eschews.

Petzold tries something more challenging. His films’ endings are surprising but not really jarring; most of the time he’s content to tell a good story, obeying the basic rules of exposition-conflict-resolution. His taut, ingenious plots, like those of the Coens or the Dardennes, remind us that there’s nothing intrinsically worse or more formulaic about a plot-heavy film compared to a more overtly experimental, plot-allergic film—Petzold’s Jerichow, with its noir structure lifted straight out of The Postman Always Rings Twice, is more inventive than anything Haneke has put his name on in the last decade.

Instead of ending with a bang, Petzold seeks epiphanies in pop music itself. Consider for a moment how rare this is: movies and TV shows are overflowing with pop, but they almost never treat it as being worthy of deep contemplation. More often, pop songs serve as convenient signposts of time and place (for instance, pretty much every musical cue in Mad Men or The People Versus O.J. Simpson), or occasions for smug juxtapositions (“Sail Away” in the torture scene of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or “Let’s Get It On” in any number of bad rom-coms). Pop is usually kept at arm’s length: either it’s comically inappropriate, or it’s exclusively appropriate for an era that has ceased to exist.

It is easy, too easy, to dismiss pop in this way, because pop, almost by definition, involves simplification, sanding away little nuances and idiosyncrasies until what remains can be enjoyed by millions of people. But Petzold never condescends to mass culture. He knows that pop, no less than jazz or reggae or late Baroque, can be a medium for complex emotions and ideas—it’s just that these things are folded tight into the music and need to be unfolded slowly, through repetition and contemplation.

His soundtrack instincts were already excellent in Pilots, the one-hour TV film he made in 1995, shortly after graduating from the German Film and Television Academy of Berlin. To intensify the drama of two traveling saleswomen trying to stay afloat in the aftermath of German reunification, he chose the theme from a 1961 Audrey Hepburn movie, written by two Americans—one the son of Italian immigrants, the other a native of Savannah, Georgia who spent most of his life in Southern California. “Moon River,” the 1964 Frank Sinatra version, plays only once in Pilots, just after Karin and Sophie embark on what will turn out to be their final sales trip. They’ll spend the next week in filthy hotel suites and overlit waiting rooms, but for a few minutes they sit in the car, nodding along to the melody and staring up at the dreamy blue sky.

A lesser filmmaker would have smothered this scene in irony, would not have been able to resist contrasting Sinatra’s velvety voice with exhaust fumes and trashcans and stray dogs fucking by the side of the freeway—anything to show that this kind of music was defunct, irrelevant to life at the end of the 20th century. Petzold listened closely enough to realize that this irony was already built into Henry Mancini’s melody and Johnny Mercer’s lyrics—for, by the 1960s, the notion of walking the earth and drifting from place to place sounded almost as corny as it does in the 2010s. “Moon River” is a song about the joys of drifting, to be sure, but it’s equally about loneliness, about being so hungry for companionship that you make friends with the reflection of the moon on the water. It’s a song about how loneliness is inextricably tied to joy—the closest thing to a blues tune ever to win an Oscar. Its wrongness, its sheer out-of-place-ness in a movie about the ‘90s German working classes, is exactly what makes it right: an ode to alienation, repurposed for an era when alienation was as inescapable as oxygen.

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If his films are any sign, Petzold’s favorite pop music is overwhelmingly English-language, in particular American. In no small part, that’s because pop, from Tin Pan Alley to rock ‘n roll to the British invasion, is largely an English-language invention. But Petzold’s selections tend to come from pop’s golden era, the 1960s, around the time that Petzold was a small child living in the Ruhr Region of what the world had only just begun to refer to as West Germany.

At first listen, Petzold’s pop doesn’t scream “The Sixties” as the phrase is usually understood. His is a ‘60s of Henry Mancini and Burt Bacharach, not Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones—the era as a child, rather than a teenager, might have experienced it. But this shouldn’t suggest that Petzold’s musical cues evoke childhood innocence. Shortly before he was born, his parents emigrated from East Germany, where America’s newest music symbolized everything wrong with capitalism, and where, a little later on, hundreds of teenagers would be jailed for listening to David Bowie and The Ramones. For families like Petzold’s, enjoying something as vanilla as the theme from The Pink Panther could be an act of rebellion, a middle finger aimed straight across the Iron Curtain.

In looking for “The Sixties” in Petzold’s films—liberty and rebellion and the faint glimmer of utopia—it’s more illuminating to start with the characters than with the music. His first masterpiece, The State I Am In (2000), revolves around a middle-aged couple with a teenaged kid. The parents are free spirits, or used to be; years ago they committed some kind of violent ideological crime, and now they search in vain for a new home and new identities, dragging their daughter with them. The words “Baader” and “Meinhof” are never uttered during the film, which makes us ponder them even more intensely.

‘60s utopianism floats through this film like a ghost, superficially similar to the real thing but chillier and scarier. At some point years ago, something went terribly wrong, but as usual, Petzold never explains exactly what. The botching of the counterculture movement can be felt in every frame of The State I Am In, but the characters lack the perspective to learn from their mistakes. It’s not clear that they wouldn’t commit their crimes all over again if given the chance.

The State I Am In comes closest to addressing head-on the failures of the Left in the handful of scenes centered around Heinrich, a teenager with a passion for Brian Wilson and the shaggy haircut to match. More than anyone else in the film, he represents the current state of the counterculture—music and weed and long hair divorced from anything resembling politics. And yet revolution lies dormant within him, hidden in the pop music he loves but does not really listen to. Judging from Heinrich, now may not be the time for revolution, but who knows whether it mightn’t come tomorrow? By the film’s end, we’re prepared to hear the Beach Boys’ “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.” It’s the obvious choice, too obvious. Instead, Petzold leaves us with something softer and sadder, written in the same year:

What can I say, she’s walking away

From what we’ve seen

What can I do, still loving you

It’s all a dream

How can we hang on to a dream

How can it, will it be, the way it seems

How can we hang on to a dream

Tim Hardin’s “Hang on to a Dream” is a requiem for a love affair. In Petzold’s hands, it becomes a requiem for the breed of radical Leftism that reached its apotheosis in ‘68, debased and embarrassed itself throughout the ‘70s, and crawled into a dark corner around the time that Reagan and Thatcher assumed office. Like all requiems, the song mourns the end of something but also ensures its survival as myth. The counterculture lives on, barely, in Heinrich and the rest of his aimless generation. Maybe the dream will be more successful the second time around, or maybe it will be a farce.

*

By the end of Transit, the options have run out. There are no second comings or saviors in Marseille, no dreams poised to come true, nothing that can cancel out the painful facts of Georg’s failure, capture, and probable death. What kind of grace, under those conditions? What music?

In a sense, it took Talking Heads nearly a decade to compose “Road to Nowhere.” The song represents what remains of the counterculture after years of squandered revolutions and dreams indefinitely deferred; the pure, concentrated jouissance that’s somehow survived without any ideology to accompany it; gasoline without a car or a lighter without a cigarette. As late as 1979, the band was still preparing for some kind of vaguely left-wing uprising. You can hear the confused excitement in “Life During Wartime” from Fear of Music, their third album—“I was thinking about Baader-Meinhof, Patty Hearst, Tompkins Square,” Byrne said of the song. With New York City in ruins and news of violent liberation groups’ exploits blackening the papers, the collapse of the old order seemed like a foregone conclusion to many—the new order may not have been much better, but without a doubt it was on the rise. With the stakes so high, there could be no time for fun and games, let alone romance: “I’d like to kiss you, I’d love you hold you,” Byrne sings, but, alas, “I ain’t got no time for that now.”

The turning point never turned, and, as of 2018, it still hasn’t. By 1984, the year Byrne finished “Road to Nowhere,” Reagan was leader of the free world, New York was back on top, and the Dow was shattering its own records daily. There were new crises but dismayingly few protests, too many causes but not enough rebels. The old order had not collapsed; the dream had been not just deferred but swallowed whole. Even Eldridge Cleaver, ex-pillar of the Black Panther Party, who had once declared all gods but the god of war to be dead, was voting Republican.

And so, by the time they arrive at “Road to Nowhere,” the Heads are almost out of options for resistance. Desperate but not yet defeated, Byrne plays the last trick in his hand; he embraces defeat, disillusionment, deferment, and he does all this with the same energy the counterculture once poured into political revolution. In “Life During Wartime,” there’s no time for love. On the “Road to Nowhere,” love is practically the only thing left. The tone is tragic but not nihilistic. By greeting the End Times with a shit-eating grin, Byrne doesn’t prevent them, but he doesn’t allow himself to be broken either. There may not be any hope, it’s true, but as long as there are other people ready to run, there need not be despair.

Two drifters, off to see the world … In those final seconds of Transit, Petzold seems to sum up everything he’s been trying to convey through pop music in the last twenty-five years. With Byrne’s help, he offers us something close to optimism, firm and clear-eyed and, not without some effort, happy. That Petzold ends his film with a song from the ‘80s, rather than the present day or his usual ‘60s, may seem strange, but there’s a kind of wisdom in his decision since, more than thirty years later, the crazed optimism of “Road to Nowhere” may be the only kind still available to us. Last October—around the same time that a current justice of the Supreme Court was accused of sexual assault, the same time that the United States topped its own record for the number of migrant children kept in cages—the United Nations published a study explaining that climate change was on track to claim hundreds of millions of lives and spark natural disasters unprecedented outside the pages of the Book of Exodus. Accept the truth or deny it, we’re all heading straight for the end. Come on inside.

Jackson Arn

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jackson Arn’s 
writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of BooksThe RumpusPublic BooksThe Point, and other publications.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 7th, 2019.