On Film

“Our Contemporary Winds”: Christian Petzold’s Transit


Max Nelson

          On the first page of Anna Seghers’ novel Transit, the narrator, an unnamed young German refugee, summons us over as if we too were trapped in Marseille in 1941 without the papers to leave. “Come, sit with me,” he says.1 “Would you like to watch them bake the pizza on the open fire? Then sit next to me. Or would you prefer the view of the Old Harbor?” Time seems to slow down around him as he starts his long account of escape, exile, and deception: “You’re bored?—I am too.”

When he made it to Marseille after escaping a concentration camp in Germany and “a French work camp near Rouen,” he says, he loved the “inhuman emptiness and solitude” of the sea. He has nowhere else to go and no plan other than extending his stay in this city shaken by fascist raids and packed with dispossessed people. Eventually a story emerges. Consul officials mistake him for a well-known novelist, Weidel, whose last manuscript he came into after finding the writer dead by suicide in Paris. The narrator, meanwhile, develops a discomfiting obsession with Weidel’s estranged wife, Marie, who hears from those consuls that her husband made it to Marseilles and tries to seek the dead man out.

But the plot is a surface on which another drama grows like mold: the swell of suffering that presses against the narrator’s cultivated indifference. “Everything just passes through me,” he says. Still, he takes it all in: the conductor from Prague struggling to get a full set of transit papers in time to take a post at the Caracas Spa Orchestra; the woman who, after getting denied a visa, spends all her travel money “devouring countless oysters” in a café; the husband, arrested during an attempt to free his imprisoned wife, who has to plead his case in handcuffs to a “yawning” functionary “with oily, slicked-down hair”; and the port city itself, “bleak and dreary” in its new role as a gathering place for fugitives and exiles.

Seghers knew what Marseilles had looked like in that role. She had been born, in 1900, to a German-Jewish family and joined the Communist Party in her twenties. In the fall of 1940, according to the scholar Helen Fehervary, she lived in Pamiers and kept making the trip east to Marseille in an “anxious pursuit of visas and transit permits for herself and her two children and, with greater difficulty, for her husband László Radványi, who was interned in the concentration camp at Le Vernet.” She got them. The four refugees sailed from Marseille to Mexico in the spring of 1941; she started the novel on the ship. Transit was a dispatch from an ongoing catastrophe, addressed to its own convulsing present. The first editions—English and Spanish translations—both appeared in 1944. No reader, Seghers seemed to decide when she had her narrator address us as if we too were stranded with him, would be allowed to enter the book without accepting the premise—or the pretense—that they were living under the same threats, discomforts, and insecurities that gave the novel its shape.

The narrator keeps wondering what it means to contemplate the past or anticipate the future from that disastrous juncture in history. Sometimes a stoic mood comes over him and he speculates that other times, distant ones, might not have been so different. (Peter Conrad, in his introduction to the New York Review Books edition, says the book keeps dropping the reader into the past “as if through a hole in the floor.”) When the agonized talk about transit visas at a café irritates him, he reimagines it as the “ancient harbor twaddle that’s existed as long as there’s been a Mediterranean Sea, Phoenician chit-chat, Cretan and Greek gossip.” The pain around him turns into just the latest entry in a long catalogue of atrocities: “The remnants of crushed armies, escaped slaves, human hordes who had been chased from all the countries of the earth.” Near the end of the novel the same café, with its “ancient, yet ever new harbor gossip,” moves him to an epiphany:

For the first time back then, I thought about everything seriously. The past and the future, both equally unknowable, and also this ongoing situation that the consulates call “transitory” but that we know in everyday language as “the present.” And the conclusion I came to—it was only a hunch at that point, if a hunch deserves being called a conclusion—was of my own inviolability.

Ghosts obsess him. He imagines them, like himself, as inviolable figures through which “everything just passes.” He pictures Weidel making “a ghostly march by night” through an unfamiliar country where “shadows move in the fields” and “corpses stirred a little in their poorly prepared graves.” When rumors reach him that the ship on which Marie sailed hit a mine “between Dakar and Martinique,” he fantasizes about her reappearing “the way shipwrecked people unexpectedly come ashore following some miraculous rescue.” He waits in the pizzeria from which he pulled us in the book’s first pages and hopes for a time when ghosts return to their bodies. “The partial scrap of a shadow on the wall in front of me,” he says, “was trying to connect with flesh and blood again.”

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Transit made a deep impression on the German filmmaker Christian Petzold. Before his friend and collaborator Harun Farocki died, in 2014, the two of them would read it together “more or less once a year,” he told the critic Steve Macfarlane. Its tone and preoccupations intertwined with those of the tense fictional movies he was making—he and Farocki worked together on the scripts—about people pushed to the margins of the neoliberal economy, haunted by violent memories, or chased by the state. By the time Petzold had finished his first theatrical feature, after making three films for television, he had started to wonder “whether it is not the case that the cinema does not always tell stories about ghosts,” as he put it to the scholar Marco Abel in 2008: “stories of people who have fallen out of love, out of work processes, people for whom there is no use anymore.”

In some cases he took that metaphor literally, staging movies about characters—more often than not women—who come back among the living “following some miraculous rescue.” The mutilated concentration camp survivor who gets facial reconstruction surgery in the first scenes of Phoenix (2014) delays telling her treacherous ex-husband, who’s hired her to impersonate his wife and help him collect her inheritance, that she is, in fact, the woman she’s playing. After her estranged stalker husband coerces her into a car and drives them both off a bridge, the accountant at the center of Yella (2007) puts the movie on a dreamlike, unstable new course by washing ashore, getting up, and hurrying to catch a train for a new life in a new city. In Ghosts (2005), a French woman comes across a Berlin teenager—parentless and practically imprisoned in a youth home—who might be the daughter she lost to a kidnapper at a supermarket many years before. The fugitive parents in The State I Am In (2000), former West German militants raising their daughter in hiding, spend that movie driving through inhospitable territory and mourning the radical past of which they’re shipwrecked survivors. Petzold called the campsites and bars through which they pass “transit spaces.”

It was as if Petzold needed to register the pressures of “the ongoing situation” through which his characters moved no less than Seghers needed Transit to fix her readers in wartime Marseille. His movies linger on work conditions: the illnesses the East German doctor in Barbara (2014) diagnoses; the dishes a young woman washes in Something to Remind Me (2001) during an undercover effort to track down and punish her sister’s murderer; the delivery routes a sullen war veteran has to plot out, in Jerichow (2008), to save gas between the branches of his new employer’s chain of snack bars; the spontaneous repair job the protagonist of Petzold’s recent adaptation of Transit (2018) undertakes on a broken radio during a long, quiet, focused sequence midway through the movie. Petzold told the scholar Jaimey Fisher he liked it when “the characters have really mastered or learned techniques and skills.”

The first ten of these features took place in the present and seemed calibrated to measure the atmospheres of the specific towns and cities that shaped them. (Jerichow and Petzold’s 2003 feature Wolfsburg both take their names from their northern settings; Yella migrates west from Wittenberge to Hanover.) In his essays and interviews, Petzold has sometimes wondered whether movies could do anything else. The daytime photography in Night of the Living Dead (1968), he wrote in a 2008 piece about George A. Romero’s zombie movies for Die Zeit, reminded him of François Truffaut’s reaction to the outdoor shots in Jean Renoir’s stagey, colorful eighteenth-century period piece The Golden Coach (1952). “For Truffaut,” he observed, “the sky in an image is always the present.” It could never help introducing a distracting anachronism into the movie’s reconstructed past.2

“I believed that for a good while,” Petzold said in 2016, “thinking that I could not make a historical drama because I simply cannot bear to be in the studio.” Then he changed his mind. When he did start making historical films, with Barbara and Phoenix, he turned anachronism into a source of energy. He came to think it was a matter of filming the past “with our contemporary winds and in our contemporary sunlight.”3

His Transit lets in more from the present than sunlight and wind. To adapt Seghers’ novel he combined it with elements from Secret and Violence—a 1951 memoir by the exiled German communist and coppersmith Georg K. Glaser—and overhauled the book’s first-person narration.4 The movie’s third-person voice-over comes not from Georg (Franz Rogowski) but from the bartender at the café he frequents, so that the character whose skewed, selective preoccupations Seghers had channeled becomes an opaque object of the camera’s curiosity. In this Transit, what undercuts the viewer’s default position of comfortable detachment is not exactly a matter of voice. It has more to do with time.

When he and Farocki first thought of adapting Seghers, Petzold has said, he wrote it “as a period picture.” But when he came back to Transit after Farocki’s death, he set it in an indeterminate time that looks more like the present than like any one recognizable past. No one has cell phones and some writers still use typewriters—but those are contemporary posters, music, and street signs in Marseille, contemporary clothes on the city’s pedestrians, and contemporary, militarized police ripping terrified fugitives out of their beds. Fascist collaboration takes a tone of familiar, solicitous good citizenship like the one with which a random Paris bystander eagerly waves down the cops to put them back on Georg’s trail in an early chase sequence. The Germans sweeping through France get referred to not as Nazis but as “the fascists” or “they.” They’re in Lyon. Avignon was just being cleansed, as they call it. The camps were full and the deportations beginning. Now they were advancing to Marseille. The bartender offers the film’s only dateable cultural reference, to another movie about people trapped in a tightening outpost while disaster rages outside: Romero’s 1978 zombie film Dawn of the Dead.

It could have been a gimmick. It never becomes one. Stripping away the novel’s historical indicators rules out the option of fitting all those horrors—the raids, the arrests and deportations, the endless talk of transit papers, the agony about who to trust, the long stretches of boredom split by flashes of terror—into a snug historical setting. Instead the movie drowns us in them. Following its high-strung movement conscripts us into this environment of pervasive state violence and surging dislocation much like obeying that presumptuous address (“come, sit with me”) does in the first pages of the novel. What the movie forecloses is the kind of privileged future-knowledge most period pieces give. Georg’s anxious flight to and from Marseille only takes place in an ongoing present from which the past and the future both seem, as they did to the Transit narrator, “equally unknowable.”

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In retrospect, Petzold’s career seems to have been building to this sort of gamble with anachronism all along. As Jaimey Fisher shows throughout his valuable 2013 study Christian Petzold, unnatural conventions—fairy tales, ghost stories, the forms and plot trajectories of older film genres—come baked even into Petzold’s movies with contemporary settings.5 Those films emphasize matters specific to the period of neoliberal economic transformation in which they take place: whether an airport might get built in a dwindling industrial town in the former East Germany; what currents of racism and xenophobia flow from a young veteran towards the Turkish German businessman who hires him; who buys luxury cars in Wolfsburg; where to shoplift in Berlin. But a gap separates the worlds onscreen from the ones we know; they follow different rules. Fisher thinks Petzold’s has always been “not an empirical or documentary search for history and historical transformation but a haunted and uncanny one.”

The rules in Petzold’s films make room for almost implausible encounters like the ones that make the central deception in Phoenix possible, put the pair of teenage runaways at the center of Ghosts in contact with the grieving mother one of them might have lost, and set an excruciating relationship in motion, in Wolfsburg, between a morally bankrupt car salesman and the mother of the young boy he’s secretly killed in a hit-and-run. Often they come from the movies. Petzold has always been an omnivorously cinephilic filmmaker. Even when he was getting his masters degree in literature in Berlin during his twenties, he told Fisher, “I really only went to the cinema.” In 1988 he enrolled at the DFFB (German Film and Television Academy in Berlin), where he studied with Farocki and worked alongside classmates—Thomas Arslan, Angela Schanelec—who likewise went on to become central figures in what critics started calling the “Berlin School.” In an essay about that loosely defined movement, five critics—Michael Baute, Ekkehard Knrer, Volker Pantenburg, Stefan Pethke, and Simon Rothhler—reconstructed a list of the eclectic regimen of film screenings Petzold and some classmates curated for themselves. It featured lesser-known films by the post-New Wave French director Jean Eustache; Andy Warhol’s Bike Boy (1967); the first feature by the Hungarian director Márta Mészáros; a Les Blank documentary about Cajun music and culture in Louisiana; Herschell Gordon Lewis’s micro-budget gore film Blood Feast (1963); and William Wegman’s short black-and-white videos about his pet Weimaraners.6

In interviews Petzold makes much of the influences that hover behind his films: the 1946 noir adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice for Jerichow, for instance, or the 1962 horror film Carnival of Souls for Yella. But he rarely alludes to those influences in the films themselves. Nor has the point been to emphasize the artificiality of the cinematic conventions he uses so knowingly. Instead he treats those conventions as reservoirs of possible solutions to questions of composition, pace, and structure. Filmmaking, he seemed to decide, needed to be handled with the same sort of precision as the jobs his characters do: accounting, medicine, appliance repair. Petzold’s movies are intricate, whirring little machines. Every scene has a crisp, deliberate distribution of energy; information arrives in parcels measured out for maximum intensity.

The films stay close to the small clusters of people on which they turn. Petzold tends to avoid wide establishing shots, as Fisher notes, in favor of ones that show a setting from a specific, restricted position within it: the trees the Transit protagonist watches flit by through the narrow window of the train car in which he’s hidden, for instance, or the swaying leaves Yella sees when she first wakes up on the shore. The teenage protagonist of The State I Am In glances at something off-camera during the movie’s first seconds, but only after following her as she chooses a Tim Hardin song from a seaside jukebox, sits on a deck, and lights a cigarette does Petzold cut, as the scene twists into a dense knot of longing and melancholy, to a shot of the surfers we soon learn she can’t join without the risk of giving her parents away.

This style—nervous, adrift, shying away from omniscience—suits the way Petzold’s characters float free of settled communities and ricochet around towns and cities in a blur. They keep their secrets close and tend to their privacy with vigilance. They need actors like Petzold’s longtime collaborator Nina Hoss, whose performances turn either on flickers of attention and miniscule shifts of bearing or, on the other hand, on how much the people she plays need to hide. The absences Hoss builds into her performances—crucial information unarticulated, reactions suppressed, speech stifled—gives them much of their energy. Only in the last scenes of her unsettling first collaboration with Petzold, Something to Remind Me, does it emerge that it’s on a revenge mission that she’s been assuming aliases and moving towns. She outlines the negative space in her characters no less precisely than she fills in the contents of their feelings and thoughts.

In Hoss’s recent period pieces for Petzold, those characters get no one to trust and no consolations to count on. Possible escapes shimmer in front of them: Barbara’s West German lover promises to hire a smuggler to ferry her across the Baltic Sea from under the nose of the Stasi agents who track her, strip-search her, and ransack her home; Nelly, the Jewish cabaret singer who comes back to Berlin from Auschwitz with a new face in Phoenix, has an invitation to join her friend Lene in Haifa. They turn them down. For the movies to go on, their secrets—Barbara’s escape plan; Nelly’s identity—have to hover in the shallows of the pools in which they’re submerged. The films end when they either surface (in the excruciating last scene of Phoenix) or, as they seem to in the last scene of Barbara, finally sink.

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“He’s great with endings,” a friend said about Petzold as I was working on this essay. Hardly any characters ever leave Petzold’s movies comfortable or settled; they stay adrift. (Fisher points out that Petzold prefers dwelling on the “abiding presence” of a past trauma rather than hitting on “the secret that will banish it forever.”) But his last scenes nonetheless tend to have a terrible finality: a secret exposed, a death confirmed, a hope for salvation denied. Some filmmakers like ending on elliptical moments full of fanned-out possibilities. Petzold more often sharpens his last scenes down to a single gesture or glance that puts a seal on his characters’ estrangement.

Transit ends, as the novel had, with its protagonist sitting in his café and waiting for the “miraculous rescue” that could bring Marie back. In the book he absorbs the reader into his oblivious, sealed-off suspension. Petzold, in contrast, shows the scene on the other side of his table by the window. The fascists have made it to Marseille. Police in riot gear stream through the streets, stopping cars, and sweeping up “illegals” like Georg for detention in the concentration camps we know by now lie not far from the city. The bartender tells us that he volunteered to hide Georg; he refused.

The movie has been building to this last crisis. It runs on constant emergency. We follow Georg from the safe house in Paris he has to flee (the neighbors know a cop), to the boxcar where he ferries his wounded friend Heinz (Ronald Kukulies) and comforts the man as he dies, to the Marseille apartment where he seizes brief moments of sad communion with Heinz’s widow Melissa (Maryam Zaree) and her young son Driss (Lilien Batman), to the squalid hotel for which he pays all his last money even though he assumes the proprietor plans to turn him over to the police “tomorrow, if not today.” Everyone is paranoid and disgusted with the passivity they’ve accepted as the price of their brief exemption from arrest and deportation. One night, Georg sees a screaming woman torn from her children while the rest of the guests on the floor look on. “He knew what was making them so still and hushed,” the narrator says. “It was shame.”

At some point, this being a Petzold movie, the novel’s story of suppressed secrets and unlikely chance encounters comes to the foreground. When Driss falls ill, Georg seeks out a kindly pediatrician named Richard (Godehard Giese) and soon finds that he happens to be living with Marie (Paula Beer), Weidel’s widow. She has a fleeting presence throughout the movie before she has lines or a name, dashing through the city looking for the husband she left in Paris. Much of the film’s later tension turns on whether Georg, by now infatuated with her, will tell her that he found Weidel dead and that it was he who filed those visa and transit applications in the writer’s name.

It must have appealed to Petzold, that cruel, coiled plot. It also posed a problem. In an interview with the critic Elena Lazic, Petzold described an exchange he had with Paula Beer about Marie. “I’m a little bit astonished,” he said she told him. “This novel is written by a woman, but it’s so male. In the novel, I have no body; I’m just an idea of male subjectivity.” Beer gives the character a kind of plausibility onscreen she rarely has on the page. But it was nonetheless still within the narrow grooves he inherited from Seghers that Petzold wrote the part. He has long drifted towards cryptic, unforthcoming characters, but figures like Barbara or Yella or the heroines of Ghosts come into focus because of the exactitude with which those movies trace the arcs of their refusals, silences, and mental operations. The difference between them and Marie is the difference between reticent characters and an under-imagined one.

Petzold has said that Transit concludes, with Barbara and Phoenix, a trilogy of period pieces called “Love in Times of Oppressive Systems.”7 (He likes grouping his movies in trilogies under names that give a general index of his themes; three of his earlier movies belonged to one called “Ghosts.”) Compared to its predecessors, Transit puts less weight on the suspense plot at its center and more on the peril and dread that cling to every movement its characters make. Threats of violence hummed under Barbara’s meetings with her lover. In this film, they roar.

Setting the film in something like the present brings those threats across so palpably that they end up making that very present ever more unstable and ever harder to sustain—until, in the end, the future itself seems to fray. When Georg looks up from his café table at the sound of the door, hoping to see Marie alive, the screen cuts to black. Then, after a moment, a Talking Heads song breaks the silence. It starts with a gospel choir: “Well we know where we’re going / But we don’t know where we’ve been.” Soon enough a drumbeat lurches in. It seems to absorb all of the movie’s anxiety and desperation. Where are we going? The song’s title gives an answer: “Road to Nowhere.”


1. The translation is Margot Bettauer Dembo’s (New York Review Books, 2013, with an introduction by Peter Conrad).
2.“Nie mehr Himmel, nie mehr Tag,” Die Zeit, September 1, 2005. I am indebted to Marco Abel’s interview with Petzold for this reference. See “The Cinema of Identification Gets on my Nerves: An Interview with Christian Petzold,” Cineaste Vol. XXXIII, No. 3 (Summer 2008).
3. “The Cinema is a Warehouse of Memory: A Conversation Among Christian Petzold, Robert Fischer, and Jaimey Fisher,” Senses of Cinema 84 (September 2017).
4. See Zhuo-Ning Su, “Christian Petzold on Transit, the Refugee Crisis, The Sopranos, and Cinematic Rules,” The Film Stage, March 13, 2018. Available at https://thefilmstage.com/features/christian-petzold-on-transit-the-refugee-crisis-the-sopranos-and-cinematic-rules/.
5. Published in 2013 by University of Illinois Press.
6. “The Berlin School: A Collage,” Senses of Cinema 55 (July 2010).
7. See Jordan Cronk, “Interview with Christian Petzold,” Film Comment, February 28, 2018. Available at https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/berlin-interview-christian-petzold/.