The refugees’ babel is a constant background presence in Seghers’s novel, a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the various ship arrivals and departures, and spreading news of any developments in the war or changes in the visa process. It is a testament to Petzold’s economy of adaptation that this ambience emerges intact in the film, pared down to a few essential encounters. These souls are not quite ghosts, not yet; what arises from the snatches of stories they are all so eager to tell is how fleetingly alive they are.
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In a striking aside near the beginning of Anna Seghers’s 1944 novel Transit, on which Christian Petzold’s 2018 film is based, Seghers’s nameless refugee narrator – on the way to the home of a family in Marseille who he hopes might provide him with food and company – refers to himself as a ghost: “Although I’m about to bore you some more by talking about the Binnet family, I assure you, we’re getting close to the heart of the matter. Then you’ll see how some ghosts can slip in through any doors.” A left-wing writer in her time, Seghers (1900–1983) enjoyed more acclaim and longevity in East Germany than in the West of Petzold’s youth, where she was frozen out of publishing and curricula. Petzold has spoken about rediscovering Seghers’s work as an adult with distance from his schoolteachers’ denigrations, a revelatory reappraisal spurred by his late mentor and collaborator Harun Farocki, to whom the film is dedicated. Petzold’s cinema is one of ghosts and phantoms, so it would seem less serendipitous and almost preordained that he might be drawn to adapt Seghers’s work; her novel is a refugee story, but it is also at its heart a ghost story.
Transit opens in occupied Paris. We are introduced to Georg (Franz Rogowski) hunched over in a cafe, looking rather unhurried given the circumstances. A friend urgently informs him that the Germans are sealing off the city, but there’s room for him in a car out of the city if he can deliver an envelope to a writer named Weidel. Upon arriving at Weidel’s hotel, Georg is greeted with a grisly sight: Weidel has, in the face of personal turmoil and the advancing military threat, gone the way of Walter Benjamin. (A quick cutaway to the bathtub reveals the grisly aftermath where the writer slashed his wrists, evoking Psycho (1960) just as Petzold’s previous film Phoenix (2013) skillfully interpolated Vertigo (1958) and The Wrong Man (1956)). “He gave me more trouble than the occupation,” the young hotel worker tells Georg, an admission somehow more disturbing than the blood-streaked bath. This chilly complicity lurks in the background of the entire film, resurfacing when a bystander calls out Georg’s direction to the police pursuing him through the streets. With the German threat now quite tangible and his friend in custody, Georg agrees in desperation to help smuggle a grievously injured friend out of the city by train. Weidel’s papers in hand, he stows away in a cargo compartment and becomes a refugee.
At this point we might address the obvious; the viewer by now will likely be aware of the film’s central conceit: Petzold shoots the entirety of the film in the present day, eschewing period trappings while preserving most of the novel’s contemporaneous historical details. (Petzold has grouped Transit along with his previous films Barbara (2012) and Phoenix into a trilogy he calls “Love in Times of Oppressive Systems,” and with each successive outing in the cycle he has ventured further into the past, with Transit’s temporal mingling bridging the ends of his filmography into a Möbius strip) (Cronk). By recontextualizing the story this way, Petzold renders it simultaneously more abstract (fascism and war in eternal recurrence) and more concrete and immediate (the views of civilization glimpsed from the train on the outskirts of the city are the views of refugees today, and will be the views of many more tomorrow should things continue the way they are headed). But it is also a psychic rupture, a more forceful deracination. Just as war has rendered the characters of Transit stateless – that is, without place – so too does Petzold pluck them from their own time.
Despite the critical attention given to it, Transit’s radical conceit is not entirely without precedent. Petzold attributes the spark of the idea to Chantal Akerman’s Portrait d’une jeune fille de la fin des années 60 à Bruxelles (1994), in which ghosts from the ’60s of Akerman’s youth flit through a day in anachronistic 1994. Robert Altman’s “Rip Van Marlowe” transposition of Raymond Chandler’s detective into hazy 1970s Los Angeles in The Long Goodbye (1973) is another noted influence, with something of the same uneasy ennui (and it too ends with a road to nowhere). But Transit’s strange, sun-dappled purgatory most reminds me of the rainy seaside town in Alain Resnais’s Muriel (1963). Both films possess a waterlogged, fugue-like quality, and with his formal gambit Petzold hits on the same trauma and discombobulation that arise from Resnais’s splintered montage shards. The characters in each “keep announcing their imminent departure” only to “find reasons to demur or defer,” and they are all temporally confused; where the ones in Resnais’s film are burdened by relics of the past (Delphine Seyrig’s Hélène lives above her antique shop, but her inventory has inundated her living space), the ones in Transit drift through the ruins of the present (Quandt). And with the dead writer Weidel, Transit has, like the titular murdered girl in Resnais’s film, a ghost that haunts its center.
On the train Georg administers morphine to an agonized Heinz (affirming Henri Michaux’s famous aphorism about traveling with dead men),1 and with nothing much else to do in the bare compartment he begins to read through Weidel’s papers. It’s during this key passage that changes begin to occur, within Transit itself – which shifts from taut Langian thriller to something more serpentine and mysterious – and within Georg, catalyzed by Weidel’s manuscript. Until this point, Rogowski’s somnambulistic portrayal has oscillated between dazed and mildly irritated, an uncanny physical channeling of the existential boredom and apathy the nameless narrator confesses to having in Seghers’s novel. But Weidel’s story, “full of mad folk, really crazy people . . . mixed up in terrible, nebulous stuff,” is a reflection of a world in which Georg feels a sudden flicker of recognition, providing him small solace and stirring him ever so slightly. Among Weidel’s other possessions he finds a letter from his publisher and two more from his wife Marie: the first a cold severance, the second a tantalizing summons. These letters are a prelude to the sea of papers that awaits Georg in Marseille, the port city where refugee roads converge.
Over the course of eight theatrical collaborations and a number of television films, Petzold and cinematographer Hans Fromm have cultivated an elegant, lithe aesthetic for their images, characterized by a spare mise en scène and often static framing with simple camera movements. Part of the motivation for these sketches of stasis is ideological; Petzold’s interests lie in “the mobile immobilities, the so-called transit zones, [the] no-places” that are consequences of the homogenization born of global capitalism and the prevailing neoliberal order (Abel). With Transit, a story that takes place entirely within these zones, his filmmaking proves so attuned to Seghers’s writing that it reaches a zenith, becoming genuinely unsettling the way it renders and insinuates the byzantine web of consulates and hotels that comprises the visa process, as well as the process’s numbing, maddening effects on the individual. The bare hotel rooms of Transit are not homes, the sparsely furnished cafes are not cozy spaces one may settle into. Every place is a waiting room. It is within one of these rooms that Georg decides at a crucial moment to assume Weidel’s identity, plunging him directly into the “mixed up, nebulous stuff” of the writer’s novel.
Identity is a slippery concept in Petzold’s films, full as they are of wanderers and searchers. In escaping to Marseille, Georg finds himself slowly slipping into two distinct identities that are not his own: not just Weidel, but also that of a surrogate father for Heinz’s son Driss, whom Georg cares for in the aftermath of his father’s death. In one of Transit’s most touching scenes, Georg bonds with Driss by repairing his radio, one of the few hints of Georg’s original vocation. (The gingerly care with which Georg handles the small metal components makes it sting all the more when he is so cavalier with Driss’s heart later on.) “Love arises because of work,” Petzold said of the scene, and indeed love, labor, and identity are intertwined throughout Petzold’s films (Cronk). One thinks of the scene in Barbara where the titular doctor’s frigid exterior reveals a maternal tenderness toward her patients when she reads Huckleberry Finn to an ailing young girl in her hospital bed. Or recall instead the two aimless teenagers in Gespenster (2005), who are the most troubled in Petzold’s oeuvre; orphaned and unemployed, they lash out repeatedly because they have nothing and are no one.
In an interview on Phoenix, Petzold articulated one of his thematic preoccupations thusly: “In the end, it’s always been about reclaiming an identity, about being someone. All these people are looking for an identity, for a place that feels like home” (“Conversation” 24:22). Petzold’s tethering of a sense of self to physical location is significant, and the idea becomes the animating concern in Transit. The crowds of refugees congregating in Marseille have all been stripped of their homes, their jobs denied and identities erased or foreclosed on. A German conductor hopes to resume work in Caracas; another woman is reduced to a dog-sitter for the Americans whose house she designed, having been promised help with a visa if she brings their two unruly pets across the ocean. In Marseille they are all the same. The refugees’ babel is a constant background presence in Seghers’s novel, a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the various ship arrivals and departures, and spreading news of any developments in the war or changes in the visa process. It is a testament to Petzold’s economy of adaptation that this ambience emerges intact in the film, pared down to a few essential encounters. These souls are not quite ghosts, not yet; what arises from the snatches of stories they are all so eager to tell is how fleetingly alive they are.
Images of digital surveillance recur in Petzold’s works. In Gespenster, a woman describes her anguish at watching footage of an unknown figure snatching her infant daughter in her shopping cart, unable to intervene while she loses her forever. When we are granted access to the footage later in the film, it effects a strange feeling; while the mother’s story is vivid and heart-wrenching, the image that concretizes it is cold and sterile. Later in the same film, a security camera feed monitors Nina as she exits a clothing store after shoplifting. The camera pans and zooms to track her movements, appearing eerily sentient, though it too does not precipitate any kind of intervention. Together these shots suggest an apparatus so large and removed from the subjects of surveillance that they become mere objects. It’s an extension of a society that watches silently as people slip through cracks, one that – as Georg observes upon his arrival – would rather pretend that refugees like him not exist than confront the horrors of reality. So it portends a terrible fate when the very first instance in which Marie runs up to meet Georg on the Canebière is shot through the blue-gray screen of a security camera (one of the only conspicuous inclusions of modern digital technology anywhere in the film), instantly marking their love story as a casualty of war and an uncaring world.
Marie too is a searcher, spending her days and nights roaming the streets of the city in hopes that she will find Weidel. Like Phoenix’s Nelly, her fruitless search for her husband is bound up in a search to reclaim a life that has been upended by the war, and it also mirrors the tragically naive hopes of the refugees. (One of the ironies embedded in the film’s title is the lack of movement in Marseille – all the preparations for departure and back and forths between consulates merely constitute running in place). Paula Beer’s performance as Marie is exquisitely sculpted in glass, a desperate woman thrust into a senseless territory without a compass, all while harboring the guilt, confusion, and sadness over having abandoned Weidel. Her red blouse, so striking against the yellow Marseille streets and Georg’s royal blue jacket, suggests the passionate flame of youth dampened by circumstance. (Petzold remains a supremely delicate colorist, like Sirk at a simmer). She falls in first with a doctor, a life preserver to help pass the time, but despite all her searching she finds only Georg. It is never explained, by way of noting a resemblance between the two for example, why Marie repeatedly mistakes Georg for Weidel. Instead their encounters are left as a metaphysical entangling with more ripples of Vertigo, like Scottie picking Judy out of the crowd.
Buffeted on all sides by the cruel winds of history, Marie and Georg seek in each other a port in the storm. But their romance is too provisional and precarious, too fraught with contingencies and conspiring outside forces. As if their magnetic polarities were in constant reversal, the two are often drawn together only to pull back due to some disruptive new piece of information regarding travel plans. In a cruel irony, Georg’s maneuvering to bring them together only nurtures this volatility; by impersonating Weidel to obtain the necessary visas for their escape, Georg attracts the notice of watchful eyes in the consulates, and news of his appearances continually finds its way to Marie. He is not just a ghost who has slipped in, he’s a phantom limb, his every move a spasm that renews her hopes for reunion and reconciliation with her dead husband. Eventually, when her resolute faith and his unwillingness to shatter it prove too much, he leaves her to board a boat alone.
In its final act, without ever betraying its placid surface, Transit becomes a terribly violent film, one marked by a series of vanishings. Petzold’s cuts become more treacherous; at times they ring out like bombs. Upon knocking on Driss’s door expecting him or his mother to answer, Georg is greeted by an entirely different family in the doorway (opening up a temporal bridge to the present day and its refugees from outside Europe). While he looks for some matches to have a smoke with the architect, an utterly unshakeable cut tears her from the earth; she seems for a moment to have evaporated into the mistral, before Georg peers over the ledge to find her body splayed out on the pavement two stories below. And finally a drowning, when Georg receives word that Marie’s ship has gone down, blown to bits by a mine off the coast of Spain.
And so again we arrive at the topic of ghosts. Marie spends the entire film in pursuit of a phantom. Near the end of the film, Georg literally sees one after the Montreal has sunk when Marie, a wraith, enters his cafe and glances at him before vanishing back onto the streets (and is there not a bit of contempt in that gaze?). The heart-stopping final shot sees Georg becoming a ghost; infected with Marie’s madness, he is now cursed to wait forever in cafes for a dead woman who will not be found. Is his decision to wait for his death at the hands of the Germans one of atonement for having manipulated and abandoned Marie? Weariness with the cruelty of the world as Weidel felt? More likely it is the opposite, for in stepping into two identities in transit, Georg has finally gained something of his own. But he has planted roots in ephemeral soil, so when everyone he has grown close to has left, there’s nowhere else for him to be. Like the strong-willed Lene in Phoenix, who nevertheless commits suicide when her survivor’s guilt becomes too much to bear, Georg now feels more drawn to the dead than to the living. In his final moments as soldiers surround the cafe, the smile that forms on his face is one of love.
In one of the letters Georg reads on the train, Weidel’s publisher laments that his manuscript can no longer be published due to tightening censorship. Crucially however, what we hear of the work itself is not overtly political; it’s a story of ordinary people, far from agitprop. That his work has been banned signals a forced shift in the dominant mode of storytelling from a written tradition to an oral one. This shift is observed not only in the refugees’ murmurings but also in the reveal that the narrator first heard on the train is the bartender of the cafe Georg frequents in Marseille, relating Georg’s tale to the audience secondhand. In time, however, we realize this narrator is not a perfect conduit, for there are occasional small discrepancies between his account and what is depicted directly on-screen: a mention of a kiss when there is none, an observation here and there of behavior that doesn’t quite square with what we see. He stands in stark contrast to Georg, who hastens to correct himself when he mixes up a lyric in the song from his childhood as he recites it for Driss’s deaf mother – a woman who cannot even physically hear him, let alone know the correct words – lest he lose a piece of himself. The bartender’s doleful narration sharpens the outlines of tragedy, and yet do we not wince each time we notice these lapses? For when all that remains of the departed are the stories, the details begin to feel quite precious; every deviation seems to render them even further out of reach. Those who have heard or borne witness to the lives and tales have the burden to pass them down, to tell and retell to all who care to hear. We must take care when we do to remain faithful, to dot the i’s and cross the t’s and make sure everything is just so, as we would on the transit papers on which so much depends, before the flood.
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Abel, Marco. “The Cinema of Identification Gets on My Nerves: An Interview with Christian Petzold.” Cineaste Magazine, 2008, https://www.cineaste.com/summer2008/the-cinema-of-identification-gets-on-my-nerves.
“Conversation – Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss.” Phoenix, produced by Robert Fischer and Elizabeth Pauker, The Criterion Collection, 2014. Blu-ray extra.
Cronk, Jordan. “Interview: Christian Petzold.” Film Comment, 2018, https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/berlin-interview-christian-petzold/.
Quandt, James. “Jacques Demy, A to Z.” The Essential Jacques Demy, produced by Kate Elmore, The Criterion Collection, 2014. Blu-ray extra.
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All images are screenshots from the film.
- “It is preferable not to travel with a dead man,” a line that also opens Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film Dead Man [↩]