After the very sparse white on black of the opening credits we see the back of Sophie's head. She's in a car, she speaks awkward French, the woman who drives gets out, gets her a map, of Marseille. We learn, very soon, that they are exchanging apartments, the other woman, her name, we learn later, is Zelda, will go to Berlin and Sophie will stay, for a few weeks, in Marseille. Zelda says: Guten Tag, Auf Wiedersehen, Mein Freund, Der Baum, its tot - the latter phrase being a German song by a German singer who died young. Zelda disappears, Sophie stays. Zelda very literally disappears because there won't be a trace of her when Sophie will return to Berlin. The Marseille apartment, empty, outlived in as it is, will have been a gift, something inexplicably given in a film that ends with something - almost a life - taken.
Sophie, for the first third of the film, is in Marseille. She walks around, she takes pictures. She looks at the pictures, she moves without a direction, the camera is with her, sometimes distant, sometimes following her closely. Sophie is a stranger in a strange world, she sometimes seems cut off from her surroundings. We hear sounds, we see her face but the background is blurred. She does not seem unhappy, she does not seem happy. She does not talk much and she always thinks for a long time when she is asked. In the end she will be asked what it is she photographs. She will think for half a minute (or perhaps she does not think, but simply refuses to answer, to herself, to the policeman who asks) and then she says: The streets.
We do not know much of her and we do not learn much of her in these minutes we spend in Marseille, walking around with her. She meets a young man from a garage, who lends her his car, she drives around, which we don't see. There is a lot we don't see - although it takes some time to realize how much. She meets the young man in a bar, they drink, a friend arrives who insults Sophie, for no reason. Sophie and Pierre, the young man, walk up in a street that is lit in brownish golden light and they sleep with each other, which we don't see (and, really, don't know). The next night they dance.
One very sharp cut later Sophie is back in Berlin, she is approached by a young woman who returns a cap to her, a cap she has left in a McDonald's restaurant before she went to Marseille. There is more she has left, or rather: she has run away from. (At least this is what can - but does not have to be - inferred.) There is Ivan, a photographer she might be in love with. There is Hanna, an actress, Ivan's girl friend, their son Anton. We learn more about Ivan, we learn more about Hanna. We see Ivan taking pictures of women workers in a factory, without an explanation. We just see and watch. We watch the women from a sidewards angle, then we watch Ivan taking the pictures, then we watch the woman from Ivan's perspective. They talk, but not much. We just hear and see and watch. There is a lot we see - although it takes some time to realize how much. We are left with these images. They remain unexplained and they don't explain what we see. "Marseille" has a bewildering structure, switching from the elliptical cut (shocking, really) to the insistent gaze (frustrating first, but amazing after all).
For ten minutes, at least, we watch a rehearsal. Hanna plays a minor role in a Strindberg play. The same scene is rehearsed three times. We watch the man talking to the woman in an aggressive Strindberg way and we see Hanna entering the stage. Then the camera moves to the left and we watch the woman answering to the man in an aggressive Strindberg way. This time we don't see Hanna entering the stage. When leaving she makes a mistake, she adds a word that does not belong in her line. We see her then off stage, cowering. Hanna is not happy. She is not happy with David, she suffers from unexplainable pain. We do not learn much more about her. Sophie is out of sight for quite some time. We start doubting if this is really her story we are told. Oh yes, it is, but Schanelec refuses to follow her and her story in linear fashion. Ivan's taking of pictures, Hanna's rehearsal become important, not so much as explanations for their behavior, just as the parts of their lives Schanelec has decided to follow.
Sophie then returns to Marseille and after the most daring ellipsis we see her at a police station, in a yellow dress. She sits, then she talks, then she does not talk for half a minute. She is asked what it is she photographs. The streets, she says after what seems a very long time. She cries. We see her on a sidewalk, the camera moving parallel to her. She crosses the street, the camera remains on the sidewalk, Sophie is moving away from it. Then she stops and the camera stops. She enters the German consulate. In Schanelec's (and cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider's) films you see the most intelligent and subtle travelings imaginable - and even More effective as they starkly contrast with a lot of very long, very static takes that just make you watch and see.
"Marseille" ends with a series of takes on the beach. It is getting dark, the street lamps are switched on. We see Sophie in her yellow dress, distant, moving, we see the sea and there is a strange kind of consolation in this image of the dress, Sophie, the sea.