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 unwilling patient in a vanished police-state metaphorically realized as a clean, functional, modern hospital. Phoenix (2014), again with Hoss and among the highest-grossing of recent German imports, is set in the postwar chaos of reduced-to-rubble Berlin.
Transit might seem to be Petzold’s third consecutive film to be set in the past, but it is not. Rife with obvious anachronisms, it eschews historical reconstruction. Petzold does not embalm Seghers’s novel as a period piece. Rather, he takes it as the basis for what initially appears to be a contemporary genre movie. The story has been streamlined and the time has been updated to the present day. The displaced illegals include North Africans as well as Jews, but the narrative remains the same. Political refugees are attempting to leave Europe and at the same time, somewhat disorientingly, Germany still appears to have invaded France. It is a version of the contemporary world with Nazi passports and without cell phones.
Petzold’s characters, most of whom can be found in some form in the novel, live in purgatory. Inhabiting a realm between the past and the present, Europe and America, and also cinema and literature, they are, in Hannah Arendt’s phrase, “living ghosts amid the ruins of our times.” The not-yet-dead and the not-quite-alive cluster like wraiths at the edge of a continent, beyond which lies the abyss.
Transit resembles many of Petzold’s previous movies in that it concerns individuals who are radically displaced, and although they exist in broad daylight, it can be read as a ghost story. One of his films—in which two lost souls, an abandoned child and a bereaved mother, are mutually spooked by their respective pasts—is even titled Ghosts (2005). It’s almost a given in certain Petzold films that one or more of the characters is some sort of apparition. Something to Remind Me (2001), for example, is a gripping Hitchcockian thriller (rather like Vertigo in reverse) in which the protagonist, played by Nina Hoss, painstakingly creates a new identity as a means of exorcizing a past trauma.
His other movies take the term “zeitgeist” literally. Writing about Petzold in The New York Times several years ago, the film critic Dennis Lim characterized his “overriding vision of contemporary Germany as a phantom zone.” Petzold’s first theatrical feature, The State I Am In (2001), centers on two members of the Red Army Faction, a couple who are perpetually on the run with a restless teenage daughter in tow. The movie, set in the late 1990s, is haunted by the phantom of the German New Left, as well as by its lost illusions. (Petzold, who frequently uses music to reinforce his exposition, uses as its theme song the mournful “How Can We Hang onto a Dream?” by the 1960s folkie Tim Hardin.) There are intimations of a generational curse. When The State I Am In was screened as part of Petzold’s recent Lincoln Center retrospective, the filmmaker invoked The Turn of the Screw as a source, citing the precedent of an innocent child trapped by her elders’ guilty past.
Overt yet discreet in its supernaturalism, Yella (2007) was inspired by Carnival of Souls, a low-budget American horror film of the early 1960s, itself a version of the Ambrose Bierce story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in which a condemned man imagines his escape and return to his family in the few seconds it takes a hangman’s noose to break his neck. Here Hoss plays a would-be striver from the former East Germany. Apparently drowned in a car accident en route to a job in the former West, she emerges from the river to live an uncanny afterlife in the company of a sleazy investment capitalist. (She’s also pursued by the unquiet spirit of her estranged husband who, mad with jealousy, purposely drove their car into the river.) Ghosts, in Petzold’s films, do not know they are dead.
Hoss rises from the grave again in the ironically titled Phoenix, playing a once-famous Jewish cabaret performer whose facial features were destroyed in Auschwitz, and who returns to a correspondingly ruined Berlin in 1945. Presumed dead, with her face surgically reconstructed, she is hired to impersonate herself at the behest of her gentile husband who, although she is uncannily familiar, has somehow failed to recognize her. He does, however, realize that the return of the wife he betrayed to the Gestapo could provide him with a profitable scam—collecting her reparations money. (The movie is loosely based on Return from the Ashes, a 1961 murder mystery by the French writer Hubert Monteilhet, in which a treacherous husband schemes to do away with his Jewish wife, returned from Dachau, to get her fortune.)
Phoenix is no more rational than Hitchcock’s Vertigo or the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which it resembles, albeit retold from Eurydice’s perspective. Its logic, like that of all Petzold’s films, is dreamlike; its emphasis is on characters who find themselves dislocated and adrift. Jerichow (2008) similarly put a new spin on familiar material. Petzold politicizes the story of The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain’s hardboiled tale of working-class adultery and murder, by turning the cuckolded husband into a successful Turkish entrepreneur who imagines himself more German than the promiscuous Germans who despise him.
Petzold’s less occult films, like Jerichow and Barbara, evoke another unquiet ghost. More than three decades after his death of a drug overdose at age thirty-seven, the specter of R.W. Fassbinder and the phantasm of his unfulfilled oeuvre still haunt German cinema. Had this madly prolific writer-director lived and continued to produce at even half the pace he established during his foreshortened career, he might have directed another fifty features and TV miniseries. Surely he would have weighed in on German unification, post-Communist Ostalgia, the war on terror, resurgent right-wing nationalism, violent Islamophobia—all themes that Petzold has addressed.
There is another similarity. Uniquely among the other filmmakers of West Germany’s Neue Kino, Fassbinder regularly used the conventions of popular melodrama to structure his critique of twentieth-century German history. Films like The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), and In a Year of 13 Moons (1978) were alienated yet accessible, so blunt and deadpan as to be nearly brutal in their analyses. In Petzold’s appreciation for Hollywood tropes, as well as his sensitivity to historical setting, he is Fassbinder’s most credible heir. (It’s telling that he has said he makes films in “the cemetery of genre cinema, from the remainders that are still there for the taking.”)
Although a less aggressive stylist than Fassbinder, who telegraphed meaning in his bold compositions, Petzold is equally thoughtful in his filmmaking. He is highly aware of camera placement, the framing of actors, and the power of oblique editing, and has a knack for abrupt endings. Jerichow stuns its characters (and perhaps the audience) with an offscreen explosion and a quick cut to black. Transit concludes on a brief ambiguous reaction shot and then goes to black with the Talking Heads’ jarring but hardly inapt song “Road to Nowhere.”
In interviews, Petzold has cited, without much elaboration, his appreciation of Fassbinder’s use of Douglas Sirk’s florid Hollywood melodramas. His direct mentor, however, is Harun Farocki, Fassbinder’s more avant-garde contemporary (and fellow Brechtian), a maker of political essay-films and video installations. Farocki was Petzold’s teacher at the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin in the 1990s, when among other films Farocki made a documentary on how recovered drug addicts, former prisoners, and the chronically unemployed are trained to “rebrand” themselves to apply for jobs; Farocki subsequently became a colleague and an unofficial dramaturge. He was responsible for sharpening the critique of neoliberalism that can be found in Yella and other Petzold films, provided the idea for The State I Am In, and worked on the screenplays for Ghosts, Barbara, and Phoenix. He also introduced Petzold to Seghers’s novel. (He died in 2014; Transit is dedicated to him.)
Petzold has recalled that because Seghers served as the president of the East German writers’ union, West German critics considered her a Communist Party hack. Farocki insisted that Petzold read Transit, and the novel became crucial to his formation: “In some ways, all of the screenplays that we developed together were more or less based on Transit.” Indeed, the title could have been used for several of these.
Shot in France during the state of emergency that followed the Bataclan massacre and the Bastille Day killings in Nice, Transit begins like a crime thriller. Sirens wail as Paris is sealed off in anticipation of the approaching German army. Petzold’s protagonist (Franz Rogowski), Georg, a member of what appears to be a small, ad hoc resistance group, dodges the cops on his way to Weidel’s hotel to deliver two letters. There he discovers the writer’s bloody remains along with a manuscript. After grabbing the papers, he eludes a police checkpoint and collects a mortally ill friend, Heinz, whom he is to escort, hidden in a boxcar, to his wife in Marseille. Heinz dies en route; Georg escapes once more and finds Heinz’s widow, Melissa (Maryam Zaree), a deaf-mute North African woman with a young son, living in a Marseille banlieue.
Given its deliberately ambiguous time frame, Transit initially appears to be a form of political science fiction, an alternate future in some ways reminiscent of the one mapped out in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. However, once Georg (whom Petzold named for the German anti-fascist “worker writer” Georg K. Glaser, the subject of a 1988 Farocki documentary) arrives in Marseille, the movie switches from hectic thriller to tense stasis. Time stands still. Georg finds a room at a shabby hotel where, uninterested in sheltering fugitives except insofar as they might be denounced to the authorities, the proprietor questions his lack of a transit visa. Absurdity is evident. “I can only stay here if I prove I cannot stay?” Georg asks. Later, having been mistaken for Weidel and given one of the two visas he requires to leave, Georg watches the police raid the hotel and arrest a handful of undocumented refugees. The other residents are shamefaced onlookers, relieved to have avoided, if only briefly, an arbitrary selection.
Marseille is the capital of anxiety, the natural home of the stateless, an internment camp surrounded by invisible barbed wire. Some want to leave; others want to go into hiding in the hills. Despite a sense of agitated hubbub in the consular offices—emphasized by the clatter of manual typewriters—the streets and the port appear largely empty. Waiting for his ship to sail, Georg encounters the same people again and again, most frequently a Jewish woman who has been hired to transport the pet dogs belonging to a couple who have already managed to flee. If the city is not a trap, it is a closed system. So, in a sense, is the movie. There is a visual suggestion that Weidel’s manuscript is actually Seghers’s novel and, throughout, a strong sense of déjà vu. Almost as though expecting Georg, Marie (Paula Beer) appears all but immediately, first crossing his path in the street, later materializing at the Mexican consulate and mainly, as in the Seghers novel, purposefully striding into and out of a café.
Midway through, a voiceover narration begins to annotate the action, describing both Georg’s feelings and the general situation: “The camps were full and the deportations were coming.” It gradually becomes apparent that the story of Transit is a tale that Georg told to and is now being recounted by the café’s proprietor, an otherwise nondescript figure. In one of the movie’s oddest anachronisms, the narrator refers to the plot of George Romero’s 1978 movie Dawn of the Dead—in which zombies besiege a shopping mall—without mentioning it by name. Petzold has compared his temporal strategy to that of Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, in which, as played by Elliott Gould, the honorable, albeit snide, private eye Philip Marlowe cuts an incongruous, if not ridiculous, figure—a vestige of the 1940s in 1970s Los Angeles. But the characters in Transit are twice dislocated, wandering between two worlds.
Superimposing World War II over contemporary Europe’s refugee crisis (or vice versa) creates a dual perspective. The effect is reminiscent of the primitive 3D comic books of the mid-1950s in which the image, doubled in slightly skewed red and green outlines, could be reconciled to simulate depth by wearing glasses with red and green filters. Possessed by the recurring demons of fascism and xenophobia, Europe appears simultaneously as a prison and a fortress, equally founded on displacement.
The movie is filled with doubles both outside and inside the narrative. Rogowski has an uncanny resemblance to the American actor Joaquin Phoenix, while Beer strongly suggests a younger Nina Hoss. Before he has established himself as the dead Weidel, Georg becomes a surrogate father for the dead Heinz’s son until, upset to learn that Georg will be leaving Marseille, the boy rejects him. It is by searching for a doctor to treat the boy’s asthma attack that Georg comes into contact with Marie, who has formed a pragmatic alliance with the medic. Fascinated by this unhappy woman but also stricken with guilt at his deception, Georg cannot decide whether he wants to be her lover or her guardian angel.
Seghers’s Marseille, like the studio Casablanca of Casablanca, has been described as a huge waiting room. (With regard to Petzold’s anachronisms, as well as Transit’s plot, I’m reminded that the German cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer once spoke of a historical period as “a kind of meeting place for chance encounters—something like the waiting room of a railway station.”) Waiting is interminable, yet departures are abrupt. A recurring question, asked by both the consul and Marie, is, “Who is the first to forget, the one who leaves or the one who is left?” Returning to check on her son’s condition, Georg is dumbfounded to discover that Melissa’s apartment is now occupied by a new group of North African illegal immigrants—are these stateless refugees planning to leave for “the hills,” as Melissa apparently did, or are they hoping to stay? In one brilliant piece of editing, Petzold evokes a precipitous suicide with three or four shots in which only the last shows an overhead view of the suddenly lifeless body.
Everyone is in the same boat—alone. As the ship that would have carried Georg, traveling on Weidel’s papers, sails for Mexico without him, Transit turns inexorably into another Petzold gloss on Vertigo. Are Georg and Marie searching for what is not lost? Will she accept him as her missing husband? Once again, Marie flits in and out of the café—or at least she does so in Georg’s mind. All of Petzold’s films are in some way predicated on impossible dreams. On the penultimate page of Seghers’s novel, the narrator expresses the hope that “Marie might turn up, the way shipwrecked people unexpectedly come ashore following some miraculous rescue. Or like the shadow of a dead person who’s been ripped from the Underworld by sacrifices and fervent prayers.” These lines, I imagine, inspired Petzold’s movie, or maybe even all of them.