There is an incredible moment in Christian Petzold’s new film Transit where our hero Georg (played inscrutably by Franz Rogowski), a refugee of the past, comes face to face with refugees of the present.
Georg is a German Jew trying to escape the Holocaust by way of notorious French transit port Marseilles. In one scene he checks in on Melissa and Driss, the wife and son of a dead comrade to find them vanished, replaced by an apartment full of frightened Muslim migrants calling the Syrian refugee crisis immediately to mind. It’s a startling tell in a film that otherwise brilliantly refuses to delineate past and present. And why would you? In a time where the fabric of our political lives is coming into starker and starker relief as a weave of threads from the fascist past.
Petzold is the German director of the celebrated 2014 Holocaust noir Phoenix, and before it Barbara and Yella, all starring Nina Hoss. His work has come to be associated not only with the enigmatic Hoss but Harun Farocki, a prolific German documentary filmmaker who collaborated on the scripts for both Phoenix and Barbara. Farocki died in 2014 and Petzold parted ways with Hoss for Transit. The result? Petzold’s hallmarks are still here—a thematic obsession with the elasticity of identity, the brisk pacing of a thriller that doesn’t preclude an involved plot, and a backdrop of political upheaval. Yet Transit comes across at once as more elaborate and more vital. Adapted by Petzold from Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel of the same name, the film tells the story of a Jewish man who, after escaping back to back internments in Nazi death camps becomes stalled in Marseilles, awaiting transit papers to flee to Mexico he only procured by assuming the identity of a dead, dissident writer. In a move that is at first beguiling, yet over time feels merely honest, Petzold has set this 1942 story in the Europe of today. I asked him about this decision, the way Chantal Akerman inspired it, nationalism, storytelling, and more.
Ryan Coleman, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I imagine there could be a purely artistic reason for setting a historical film in the present day. But Transit is a film about refugees and xenophobic extremism. Was the decision to use this conceit political? Were there films you drew from that employ a similar conceit?
CP: I saw a movie years ago by Chantal Akerman that was made for French television. It’s no longer than 60 minutes. The title was something like, “the day in the life of a girl in Brussels, 1968.” (1994’s Portrait d’une jeune fille de la fin des années 60 à Bruxelles). It’s 1968, you can see the young woman and her boyfriend—they go to a record shop and buy the new Beatles album Abbey Road. They go to their flat, listen to the record, have sex with each other, drink a bottle of vodka, and the film is over. But she films ’68 in the Brussels of today. You have fantastic ideas: you have the idea of what is happening to the hedonistic, revolutionary idea of ’68—new music, new behavior, new relationships. Then you see Brussels today. You see what’s happened to this idea, that it’s been commercialized, on posters and in S&M boutiques. From the revolution we have total capitalism. She made a period picture and a contemporary picture in the same moment. This is the idea that I had for Transit. The refugee stories are not the same but they are in a relationship with each other.
MM: With a very real refugee crisis going on across Europe right now you had raw material all around you—locations, images, stories. How did you decide what elements of the present to include and which elements from the past to recreate?
CP: I can’t make a picture of refugees today because I don’t know them. I see them, I can talk to them, but I don’t know their stories. What I can do is make a movie of the refugees of 1942, because they created our country —the Federal Republic of Germany of ’49, and because i read their books, heard their music, saw their architecture, saw their films, made for example in Hollywood. But again, there is a relationship. When Georg is coming back to the apartment after repairing the radio of Driss (Lilien Batman). He is ringing the doorbell, and when the door is opened refugees of today are now in this apartment. This is the only moment where refugees of the past and the present are looking at each other. They see in the face of each other something. They see each other, they understand each other, but they are not the same.
MM: There has been a revival of nationalism and a period of right radicalization across Europe. When did the writing of this film begin, and did that process have any impact on the formation of the script.
CP: Oh, yes. Harun and I started writing this film in 2013, intending it as a period picture. We were not thinking about refugees in Europe like we were in 2015, when one million are coming to Germany and France. After Harun’s death everything changed. I couldn’t do a period picture anymore. There were going to be costumes, we were going to shoot parts in a studio, but none of it interested me anymore, because of the refugees of today. They are not the same, but there is a correspondence between the movement. The movement of the people who are looking for a place where they can live today and the people who were on the run in 1942.
MM: This fits in with a theme running throughout the film of telling and receiving stories. Seghers’ own refugee story formed the basis of her novel and then this film. Georg in the film evades his own story, feels burdened by the stories of other refugees he’s crammed in proximity to, yet he assumes the identity of a dead writer.
CP: I love the idea that he finds the manuscript of a dead writer. This is the first book in his life he has read. He finds the wife of the writer. This is the first woman in his life he has fallen in love with. He assumes an identity of someone else, he has a desire someone else has felt. It is false, but on the other hand it is totally true. The emotions are true, but the identity is wrong. There is a German expression that goes “there is no right or wrong.” In cinema it is something like, “the only true things are on the wrong side.” The only people who have real desires are betrayers. The only people who love their lives are bank robbers. The real love you can find is outside of a marriage. Cinema loves it. Georg is this modern guy. Everything is wrong. He’s a betrayer, he’s a pretender. But he finds a manuscript, and he finds a woman, and feels what could be… I’ll stop here. My English has broken down. MM
Transit is now playing in New York City and opens in Los Angeles on March 8, 2019, courtesy of Music Box Films. All images courtesy of Music Box Films.