Three of the most striking offerings in this year’s New York Film Festival — new films by Christian Petzold (“Transit”), Pawel Pawlikowski (“Cold War”) and Ruth Beckermann (“The Waldheim Waltz”) — have benefited from the proliferation of movie screens in the city, enabling them to find theatrical release after the festival ends this weekend. Petzold, one of the central figures in the recently emerging Berlin School of filmmaking, is well known for “Barbara” and “Phoenix,” and Pawlikowski’s “Ida” deservedly won the foreign-language Oscar, so their latest efforts would undoubtedly be making debuts in town anyway. But Beckermann, an Austrian journalist and filmmaker, is virtually unknown here, despite a formidable track record of incisive Jewish-themed non-fiction and feature films. Each film resonates powerfully with the headlines, and all three present painful truths.
“Transit” is adapted from the novel by prominent anti-Nazi Jewish writer Anna Seghers, and based on the story of writer and Communist activist Georg Glaser. The film traces the downward spiral of a refugee and Resistance member in France while he tries to escape from the rapidly advancing German army. (It screens Oct. 14 at the festival.)
Another of Seghers’ novels, “The Seventh Cross,” provided the basis of a ’40s MGM vehicle for Spencer Tracy, but Petzold is not interested in making a period film with the stifling vacuum-tube atmosphere of the sound stage. He makes a much riskier choice, leaving the narrative intact with all its period references, but shooting in contemporary settings on locations in Marseilles, making no effort to disguise 21st-century architecture, automobiles or police weaponry. The potential cognitive dissonance (or just downright obviousness) of the device is short-circuited by Petzold’s savvy use of familiar images from a chronological range that embraces the rise of Fascism in the ’30s and its more recent return throughout Europe. As a result, his 2018 film confers on Seghers’ novel, first published in 1944, a timelessness at once electrifying and yet deeply depressing.
In creating a world of exiles living in politically enforced homelessness, Petzold surrounds his Georg (Franz Rogowski) with death and emptiness. The film includes several suicides and unexpected deaths and a powerful sense of modern urban life as a series of slums alternating with dismal waterfront hotels. Rogowski is magnificent as our Virgil in this modern Dante-an hell, a perfect blend of passive witness, empathetic listener and surprising activist, suddenly flaring into action at unexpected moments. Unlike “Seventh Cross,” “Transit” offers no final image of redemption and escape. The film closes on a shot of George, sitting despondently in a café waiting for the arrival of a dead woman.
Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” may be read as a cautionary tale of what happens when such wishes are granted. Inspired by his own parents’ experience of post-World War II Poland, “Cold War” is an odd, jazz-inflected threnody, a wailing, yet mournful ode to a pair of doomed lovers who (unlike Pawlikowski’s family) are condemned by their own incompatibility and the buffeting whiplash of shape-shifting Stalinism in the Warsaw Pact countries.
Like “Ida,” the new film was shot by Lukasz Zal in shimmering, moody black-and-white. Once again, Zal’s mist-drenched landscapes suggest the evanescence of historical memory when juxtaposed with personal pain. Yet, as in “Ida,” “Cold War” also offers the powerful sense of time as a palimpsest on which are written many layers of experience, not necessarily by the same hand. Pawlikowski makes that abundantly clear with two appearances at key moments of an abandoned medieval church in an overgrown countryside, its mosaics of saints half-hidden under subsequent growth and decay.
Music provides the vehicle for the film’s exploration of the ill-fated Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig). He is a gifted composer and arranger, forced by the regime’s aesthetic politics into forsaking his jazz and modernist interests to work with a unit collecting folk music. She is a protean figure of mystery, neither the peasant girl she passes for nor the femme fatale most assume her to be. As Pawlikowski shows them slipping through the years between 1946 and 1964, moving from the Polish woods to Warsaw, Berlin, Paris and, finally, unhappily back to Poland, he shows in shorthand the multiple ways in which an amour fou can go wrong. Their personal failures are compounded by a politically motivated bureaucracy that can casually insist that a young chorister “who is too dark” (meaning “too Jewish”?) dye her hair blonde for a “classic Slav” look, uncomfortably similar to the perfect Aryan appearance prescribed by a previous oppressor.
Ruth Beckermann knows that oppressor well. An Austrian Jew and an investigative journalist and filmmaker, her latest film, “The Waldheim Waltz,” is a rumination on the rise to prominence and the highest office in Austria of the former U.N. Secretary-General and Nazi war criminal Kurt Waldheim. (It screens Oct. 11 and 13 at the festival.) Beckermann covered his campaign 30 years ago and recently stumbled across the videotapes she had shot back then, long thought lost. With the headlines in newspapers all over the globe, she was unhappily reminded of Waldheim’s toxic blend of populist, tribal nonsense and exclusionary Christianity.
As the film makes abundantly, emphatically clear, Waldheim’s appeal was predicated on the myth that the Austrians were the “first victims” of the Nazis rather than eager collaborators, enablers and co-authors of German horrors. That distortion of history fueled a sense of resentment at modernity that recently has taken the forms of proto-Fascist prescriptions in nations as disparate as Brazil, the Philippines, and Sweden, and renascent Nazi-tinged parties in Germany, France and Austria. The apparently successful appeals to the irrational and nativist by leaders as influential as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Victor Orban and Vladimir Putin, based as they are on wholesale disregard for facts, could be seen to have their inspiration in Waldheim’s 1980s campaign and government.
Or not. Beckermann is a deft and talented filmmaker, the footage she presents is enormously valuable and her argument intermittently convincing. My own suspicion is that Waldheim’s influence on subsequent right-wing politicians is rather less powerful than the film suggests. Perhaps the emergence of Jörg Haider around the same time, no doubt enabled by Waldheim’s success but even more extreme in its viciousness and overt anti-Semitism, is a more likely inspiration for Marine Le Pen and self-proclaimed admirers of Hitler like Rodrigo Duterte.
Regardless, “The Waldheim Waltz” is compelling, if often unpleasant, viewing.
The 56th New York Film Festival runs through Oct. 14 at the venues of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, filmlinc.org/nyff2018. “The Waldheim Waltz” opens Oct. 19 at the Metrograph (7 Ludlow St.; metrograph.com) and the New Plaza Cinema at Symphony Space (95th Street and Broadway, symphonyspace.org/events/type/new-plaza-cinema). “Cold War” opens theatrically on Dec. 21 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. “Transit” opens in March 2019 at theaters to be announced.