A Citizen Without Civilization: Christian Petzold Discusses "Transit"

The German director talks about loneliness, refugees and ghosts in his transposition of Anna Seghers' WW2 novel into present-day Marseille.
Daniel Kasman


A German, possibly a Jew, is on the run from occupation forces through wartime France in Christian Petzold’s Transit. Is he a hero? This is a difficult question, and one muddied all the more by the German director’s at once bold and simple concept of transposing Anna Seghers’ novel, written and set during the Second World War, to today’s Marseille—all the while retaining the plotting and references to Germany’s invasive path through France. Stranded in the French port and trying to find a way out of the country, Georg (Franz Rogowski) is mistaken for a dead writer who has been granted a visa to Mexico. Flustered at first, the refugee soon takes advantage of this other identity, but while waiting for his boat to leave Georg is drawn to the son of his dead comrade, a half German, half African boy, as well as to a mysterious woman (Paula Beer) who seems to appear wherever he is, mistaking him for somebody else. Georg finds himself caught between the desire to flee and survive and a kind of instinctual compassion and mystery asking him to linger, wander, and scheme.

As opposed to Hollywood filmmaking, which seeks to sublimate direction into concept so that a film seems to float without intentionality, Transit exemplifies qualities of the so-called Berlin School by clearly delineating its genre storytelling from its distanced and analytic style of filmmaking. Like a Fritz Lang film, Transit is plotted relentlessly, but Petzold, as is his style, keeps the mise en scène and perspective spartan to a razor’s edge of alienating. From this comes the vivid sense that each twist and turn of events is not just about narrative surprise, but that the film is making greater points—of ideology, of politics, and reflexive ones about how cinema relates to reality—along a story path mined at every angle with meaning. It’s a kind of diagram cinema that calls upon our collective love with the movies and then proceeds to question it, often very subtly, as a familiar tale is told askew with an inquisitive gaze.

And askew is indeed the sense of Transit, which, despite the palpable sunny heat of the port of Marseille, is laden with ominous foreboding. Only a few costumes and props, casually integrated, allude to the original wartime setting of the novel, and instead we see bare glimpses of modern-day French police standing in for the German army, conducting raids and arrests. But violence and this encroaching “war” is mostly in suggestion, and like a film by Jacques Tourneur, Transit obtains a dampening, nebulous atmosphere of uncertainty. Some references, like to Casablanca, are obvious, but the film’s stark, slightly stilted and minor key quality is hard to define. The director’s last two films, both true period films, the East German intrigue Barbara and the post-war tale of vengeance, Phoenix, were big successes, so the modern but nearly nondescript setting and low wattage—though constant—tension in Transit suggest an almost willful desire to make a supremely, and perhaps deceptively, modest story of a refugee crisis bifurcated between and overlapping 1942 and 2018. In idiosyncrasy, though not in scale, the film would pair well with the unusual, mostly forgotten big budget Lewis Milestone refugee drama Arch of Triumph (1948). Obviously we are, of course, to think of our own refugee crisis and hostile government immigration policies, though this suggestion is less provocative than the allusion that the fear, fragility, and oppression of the Vichy government is, in some way, akin to our current ‘peacetime’ situation.

Through all this is also family and romance, two expressions of love that hold Georg in Marseille and conflict his drive to survive. His own internal crisis, while occasionally commented upon by a mysterious narrator whose voice-over pitches this story of the present moment back into the past, something that happens some time ago, is a mystery. Franz Rogowski's wonderful, insular and ferrety performance, a brother to Joaquin Phoenix in the films of James Gray, underscores the ambiguity of his morals and his character. We sense he has a subdued will to live, for whatever reason (a history in German camps is suggested), and while lust might push him so far, a complex blend of compassion and guilt seems his true motivation. Perhaps Georg becomes ensnared by his friend’s family and the Marseille mystery woman precisely because he’s unknowingly looking for a way to make an impact, have a presence, be a moral being—a way to exist in a world of extraneous, unwanted people, and find recognition. This is a strange position for Transit’s hero, who is a hunted refugee. Yet through the false identities, doubles, and mirroring (none stranger or more meta than Paula Beer being styled to look like Nina Hoss, the great German actress so closely associated with Petzold’s films that Beer seems like her ghost) he becomes empowered to make a difference, one of assistance (and notably not one of resistance or violence) and moral conscience. This position is much like the mystery of the film, which itself seems purposefully held in suspension, intriguing and pensive—waiting, trying, waiting, trying and waiting again, an anguished hell of physical and moral limbo.


While killing time at a cafe before interviewing Christian Petzold at the Berlin International Film Festival, where Transit premiered in competition, the director unexpectedly sat down next to me at the bar. Recognizing each other from our last conversation, Petzold observed that he likes the bar, as bartenders are akin to the atheist's confessor. "In films like Murder by Contract or The Killers, men are always waiting around and telling their stories at the bar," he mused. "For some people, this is the only place they can tell their story, because the bartender hears everything but remains only an observer."

NOTEBOOK: We’ve talked in the past about how you want your camera to be at once objective and subjective at the same time. With the way you’ve taken Transit and changed the time period, do you see as the historical setting of the Second World War being the “subjectivity” and Marseille today being the “objectivity”?

CHRISTIAN PETZOLD: That’s interesting, because I used voice-over in this film for the first time in my life, and you know the whole book by Anna Seghers was written in the first person. I think the first person in cinema as a voice-over always wants to betray its audience. Like in, for example, Fight Club, or...

NOTEBOOK: Barry Lyndon, maybe.

PETZOLD: In Barry Lyndon it’s the author of the novel who’s talking. Because he’s talking about Barry Lyndon and he’s a parvenu, and the author’s voice-over is a little empathetic and a little bit ironic—and I don’t like this so much for our movie. And so I said—we talked about it in the bar—all the refugees in the world, they don’t have places where they can talk, nobody wants to hear their tale or their stories, so a place where they can talk is at a bar to the bartender. The bartender is someone who is neutral and who has time for them. So I think the bartender is telling the story, he’s a part of the story and also not part of the history—this is my position.

So, your question was subjective and objective and our time today is the objective time and subjective time: That’s absolutely right, because the subjects of the past are like phantoms in our objective reality. When I go through Berlin, for example, and we have some memory stones on the boulevards where you can read the names of the people who are deported during fascism—their names, when they were deported and when they died in Auschwitz or other concentration camps—so you’re going through objective Berlin and you’re seeing subjective stones and the times are together. You know in the structuralist theory there are two words: the one is metaphor and the other is metonym. The metaphor means one over the other, and metonym, one beside each other. I think history is not just [layers hands on top of one another] over and over and over, it is also something where in the same time you have the old and the new things together. You have the subjective and the objective in the same moment: this conception I try to bring into Transit, and also in the skills we used making it: all camera positions, all departments are working with this theory.

NOTEBOOK: Since you mention the bartender I wanted to ask: between Phoenix and this film you made two Polizeiruf 110 films for television, Kreise (2015) and Wölfe (2016). Matthias Brandt, who plays the police detective in those two, cameos as your bartender and narrator. The German audience I saw the film with chuckled at this inside joke, but knowing your cinema this is not a only joke, but it’s also a very important choice.

PETZOLD: Yes that’s right! For me, in the old stories, like Don Siegel’s Madigan, for example, all the policemen or the detectives don’t have a private life, they are very empty—they are in the transit room, because they don’t have something of their own. For 150 years the detectives and the policeman in cinema and in literature are going through the passions and the love affairs and the crime stories and the desires of other people. They are living from other people, a little bit like the author who is writing the novel: he is not a part. I like the loneliness of these guys, when they are contract killers in a hotel, when they are detectives, like Richard Widmark, or the loneliness of Sterling Hayden in The Asphalt Jungle, for example. For me, Matthias Brandt, who’s playing the police detective in these two crime stories I made, he’s also very, very lonely. In those films, he’s meeting a woman who’s also very lonely and they both try—they are over 50 years old—they both try to reach something like love, but they fail. When I thought about Transit, I thought: the bartender and the detectives, in literature and cinema, they’re on the same side of history, they see history—

NOTEBOOK: —they’re the observers.

PETZOLD: Yeah, they’re observers, they want to be part of it, but they can’t. There’s a borderline, it could be the bartender or it could be the professional. So this loneliness of people. For example, in Susan E. Hinton's Rumble Fish, the guy who’s writing down the story is the one who never fights, never kisses, never drinks alcohol. This loneliness I needed for the position of Transit, because I don’t want him to say ‘I’ in the voice-over: ‘I’m’ not a part of it, ‘I’m’ outside, but ‘I'm’ also, in another way, inside. This is how this objective/subjective thing is working.

NOTEBOOK: You’re dealing with a story that’s to a large degree about compassion and how one makes moral decisions in a void—in a way it's a sentimental story, and narrating it removes us from the sentiment, it allows us to see the sentiment rather than necessarily be with the sentiment.

PETZOLD: Yes, that’s right. What’s the English word for when you see an accident and the police is asking you what is happening?

NOTEBOOK: An eye-witness?

PETZOLD: A witness… an eye-witness, yes! For me, the bartender is an eye-witness, and he’s a lonely eye-witness, he’s talking to us like we were policemen or  professors of history or archaeology, and he’s telling us stories he has seen. But he’s an eye-witness who’s a little bit subjective. So he had seen things which have not ever happened: for example the kiss, he says he saw a kiss that we don’t see. And so we have this eye-witness who’s lying a little bit, because he also has desire, but we also have the objective reality of the movie, so both the eye-witness and the story [making parallel motions with his hands], sometimes they touch. Sometimes, like in music, they are like out of sync, so they have a difference. From this moment I think a voice-over makes sense, because like Nagisa Oshima you can have an eye witness who’s talking about what he’s seeing, and you see objectively what’s happening, so the eye witness has also a personality, he’s also a character. He’s not objective in a way such that he’s the author of a very famous book, but rather he’s someone who’s inside and outside at the same moment.

NOTEBOOK: Tell me about your conception of this bar, because when one thinks about meeting points in genre films—and for this film obviously we think of Casablanca—you picture highly stylized spaces, very atmospheric and evocative, and instead you make this very important distinction that this restaurant is just a normal corner place, there’s nothing special about it. There’s nothing unusual, there’s no strange angles, no smokey music. It’s just a cafe that may be most convenient to the characters. So tell me about how you chose this location, to be the place around around which so much of the story spirals.

PETZOLD: I think that all the refugees in the world, if they’re coming from Mexico or from North Africa, all refugees when they are in these kinds of transit zones, they are passengers, they are passing things, yeah? So, in Casablanca for example, Rick’s cafe is a place where you can sit down, and you are in the middle of the world at this moment, you can order a drink, and you are here and there’s Sam, who’s playing music, and the past has a room for itself. We thought about where to find a restaurant where when you are in it you are like passengers, you can go through, like on the street. This is not a place like a home: the people are just passing each other, they can talk a little bit with each other, but you can’t sit down and find a place you can call home. This was the first idea.  It cannot be a home, but they try to make a home, they have a pizza, they have wine. I remember that the production designer who created this room was always saying, “we need something, perhaps a jukebox? Something for atmosphere...” No, I don’t want atmosphere! [laughs] It’s like a boarding zone—with wine and pizza.

NOTEBOOK: You wait, people pass, but no one stays.

PETZOLD: No one stays. So the choreography that we have for all these stories is that people are passing like they want to dance with each other, they touched each other and then they go away—but they meet everywhere. I read the first ten pages of Naked Lunch by Burroughs, I read them to some of the actors to tell them that junkies, for example, are also in a transit route, they came to Tangiers or they came to San Francisco, they know the places where they can buy something. This is not a home.  They’re like the refugees who come into a harbor city and they know where to go. There they can sit down for 20 minutes, there they can eat a pizza very cheap, and there they can sleep under the bridge….

NOTEBOOK: “They won’t bother me here.”

PETZOLD: Yeah. So this atmosphere is what I wanted to have. But I don’t want to tell it with a big picture, just by the choreography I can show how people are just passing and don’t find a place of their own.

NOTEBOOK: I found a similar characterization of Marseille as well: it didn’t seem obvious. While it felt like you were choosing your locations very specifically, in a way they were kind of general. The city didn’t seem so well-defined that someone could live there. It’s obviously Marseille, but it could be any city.

PETZOLD: That’s right.

NOTEBOOK: Is this similar to the idea that this refugee status has no home or a stable place, that everywhere visited is just a place that people pass through?

PETZOLD: The producers said to me, “hey lets do it in Le Havre, it’s much cheaper,” like Kaurismäki made it there [in his film Le Havre] and it’s much cheaper there than Marseille! But I said that the novel by Anna Segher is based in Marseille, so I want to do it in Marseille. But in other ways, Marseille is also like the metonymic history. Marseille is a very strong, corrupted but very strong city. All the tourists in Marseille, they’ve vanished. Not like in Berlin, where you see them everywhere; they’ve vanished in these passing places, everywhere, and when you have a history in Marseille that you can see it in this metonymic way. You have, for example, this old city, where the resistance against the Germans, the resistance was very strong—and the Germans bombed it totally. They’re some houses left there, and the French government in the fifties built new houses, for these people, from this Panier part—Panier is the name of this part of the city—so you can see the fascist terror, you can see the rebuilding of the fifties, the socialistic re-buildings—it looks like Moscow, no? And behind there’s the house where Napoleon lived, in the 18th century, and everything’s together and is living together: it’s the character of Marseille to be a mixture. You know, every fascist ideology tried to destroy mixtures, and wanted to have order, no mixture anymore; no mixture of races, no mixture of politics, no mixture of media. They want to have clear, strong lines. And Marseille is so strong that every fascist or corrupted government tried to destroy the mixture, but the mixture is stronger, and so there the refugees can live—and the history can live, and not just the history, also the stories can live on.

NOTEBOOK: Is this “mixture” idea why you wanted to have the child Georg visits to be half German and half North African?

PETZOLD:  Yeah, that’s because I think this movie is a bit like a dream between the times, and in this dream between the times the old times are passing and also the present times are passing—and they touched each other, and they understand each other. When Georg opened the door [to the boy's flat], we expected the little boy and his mother, and [instead] there are 25 refugees from Yemen and Somalia. They know each other, not directly, but like you are also refugees, you are fifty years older, but we are all refugees.

NOTEBOOK: Did you want to remain true to the character of Georg from the book rather than make him, say, an African migrant or more clearly Jewish?

PETZOLD: You know, this book is so fantastic because it is based on this very, very German tradition that we have books like Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, or the Grüne Heinrich by Gottfried Keller. These are always the books of people who are becoming doubtful, and the lonely reader of Transit is also someone who starts getting doubtful by reading the dead writer's book. This guy, Georg, he’s nothing, he’s like Belmondo in Breathless, just taking things in the present—some money, some girls, some love. He has no idea of the future, he has no identity. He’s just a daydreamer, a little bit—and a day-thief. And now he’s reading something of a dead man, a manuscript of a dead man, and in this there is a story, and he’s getting a story, he’s getting the part of a tale, and he’s getting an identity. He learns to love, learns loyalty, and learns also to betray and the feeling of guiltiness when you are a betrayer, and so at the end of the story, he is someone. But that means that he’s someone that’s in transit—this was the evolution.

NOTEBOOK: I was struck by the fact that for much of the film I don’t know who this person is. I know who Georg is in the moment, but I don’t know what his past is. He looks kind of shifty, maybe he’s actually unscrupulous, perhaps a bad person—I don’t know. You sense a character that has history, but you don’t have any sense of what that history actually is, it’s a complete mystery.

PETZOLD: In the first dialogue we have in this movie, in the bistro in Paris, he said, “I’m alone. I don’t have this guy with the one leg beside me”: so he’s disloyal at the beginning. He’s a little bit criminal also, he takes this and, “oh I take this too,” and then he learned to be a citizen. But there is no civilization around him. A citizen without civilization: this is his fate.

NOTEBOOK: As someone who loves your movies, I also admire your collaboration with actress Nina Hoss, and her absence from this movie is felt, at least for a fan like me. But then I saw Paula Beer in Transit I thought, “my god, this young woman is styled very much like Nina.” Beer's character Marie seemed to me, in a meta-way, a cinephilic way, a ghost of previous characters from your films.

PETZOLD: Could be, could be. When Nina was very young, when we made our first movie, she was 24, she was a little bit like Marie, yeah? I think that in our collaborations she has also made an evolution, but now she has an identity. Nina Hoss could play, for example, Ingrid Bergman’s part in Stromboli,  because she has history, she has something behind her, she’s an Ingrid Bergman, she’s an architect, she’s in the camp. She is someone and she has to be someone else: this is now the story. Then Marie, she’s very, very young, and she’s the muse of the writer and she’s starting to become a woman, a real woman and a complicated character, like Georg starts to become a man. She also learns what it means to betray someone and she learnt that the feeling of guiltiness is sometimes—I would not say always—is sometimes stronger than the feeling of love. For this, I need two young people, and in a way innocent, to tell their story,

NOTEBOOK: How did you decide on the presence of violence you wanted in this film? I was struck by how little it has. Transit is a genre story, so I expected, as it went along, to have more murder, more police or the military—but instead the violence is just on the margins. There’s the one scene of a hotel raid, and the arrests at the beginning, but then it’s just atmosphere, the violence could be anywhere, but you see almost nothing. How did you decide how much you wanted to show and what to keep in the fog?

PETZOLD: I think that word is very good, “margins,” so the margins. I think that when you are living in the situation like these refugees, when you are reading all these biographies of the refugees on their path way from the fascism and the death, you can see that you have to put all the violence in the margins, you have to filter, so that you can live on. In this movie, I’m always on the side of the refugees. I think this raid scene is very violent, when this mother was dragged away. I wanted to, just for one moment, just for five seconds, I wanted to see the reaction of the refugees who are feeling guilty because they are without any power. They cannot do anything, therefore they are guilty. This reaction of the refugees is more important than the violence. I don’t want to shock the audience, I don’t want to make a movie for the audience, the audience doesn't have to understand: they have to produce their empathy, I don’t want to give it to them very cheaply. This is good, this is bad—no, they have to produce it.

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