Christian Petzold: The State We Are In
The protagonist of Anna Seghers’s novel Transit (1944)—the source for Christian Petzold’s new film of the same name—is a young German who, having escaped from a Nazi concentration camp and then a French work camp, makes his way to occupied Paris. There he is recruited by another former inmate to deliver a letter to an anti-fascist writer named Weidel. The letter is described to him as a desperate plea from Weidel’s estranged wife, Marie, who is stranded in Marseille.
But Weidel, as Seghers’s nameless fugitive discovers, has committed suicide in a Left Bank hotel room. Carrying the dead man’s suitcase, which contains a manuscript that he reads out of boredom, as well as the letter, the fugitive travels to Marseille; once there, “a specter among the visa applicants,” he finds himself, almost unintentionally, taking Weidel’s identity and applying for his exit visa. The consul seems weirdly eager to help someone so distinguished. Waiting for passage to the New World among a disparate horde of desperate souls seeking to escape Europe, the fugitive shadows and is shadowed by Marie, who is frantically searching for her dead husband; thanks to the bureaucratic trail left by the imposter, she believes him to be alive in Marseille. Tipped off that her “husband” is enjoying a pizza in a harbor café, she finds only the fugitive Weidel, and her unrealizable pursuit continues.
Seghers’s existential thriller—recounted in the first person, a tale told by one refugee to another, and written while the author, having successfully gotten out of Marseille, was in exile in Mexico—has been described as Casablanca imagined by Franz Kafka. In his introduction to a 2013 translation of Transit, Peter Conrad invokes both movie and writer, as well as Waiting for Godot.* (The headline to William Du Bois’s highly unfavorable review in The New York Times got the novel perfectly: “A Refugee with a Visa to Nowhere.”) Sartre’s No Exit, first performed in 1944, the same year that Transit was published in English and Spanish versions, is another analogue. So too perhaps is Camus’s The Stranger (1942). The underlying absurdity of the fugitive’s condition, as well as Transit’s understated modernism, belies Seghers’s reputation as a Marxist ideologue; most certainly this strain of absurdism helped interest Petzold in the material.
Although insufficiently known outside of Germany or the world of international film festivals, Petzold, fifty-eight, is arguably the strongest representative of the group of early-twenty-first-century German directors called the Berlin School. Most of his films have been set in post-unification Germany; it is only since he began making period pieces that they have gotten American distribution. Barbara (2012), his first historical feature and the first to be commercially released here, cast his frequent leading lady, the dour and beautiful Nina Hoss, as an East German doctor, at once a conscientious worker and an…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.