“You want short answers?” asks Christian Petzold, after a long haul on a hypermodern vape pen in the upper-level lounge of the Berlin International Film Festival’s luxurious Filmpalast. “We can try it.”
I tell him I don’t want short answers. He says that’s good. And it is. Because Petzold, the 57-year-old German filmmaker, speaks in long, winding paragraphs. And while his English is perfectly serviceable (even elegant), he insists on speaking through a translator, who is saddled with unpacking Petzold’s densely stuffed ideas, then repackaging them for an English speaker struggling to keep up.
Transit, Petzold’s latest, abounds with such big ideas. “Hard stuff,” as Petzold describes it. The film adapts Anna Seghers’s Second World War-era novel Transit Visa, which tracks French refugees escaping Paris following the Nazi invasion. In an inspired, almost shocking twist, Petzold transports the action to a version of our present moment, where an unnamed foreign army pushes mostly white, by-and-large beautiful fugitives – chief among them is Georg, played by the lupine, vaguely Vincent Gallo-ish German actor Franz Rogowski – into the underground as they seek passage to the United States. Or Mexico. Or any friendly port, really.
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“I’m a Protestant,” says Petzold. “And I suffer from a desire to have total control over everything. If you do a period piece, you have a total control: over the lighting, over the costumes, over the dialogue. When it’s being filmed in a studio situation, you can plan every square-inch, as if you’re planning an exhibition for a museum. It’s turned into a museum-like situation. I didn’t like that.”
It’s a curious sentiment from a filmmaker who is known for his control. Many of Petzold’s critically acclaimed melodramatic thrillers (2008’s Jerichow, 2012’s Barbara, 2014’s Phoenix) boast a borderline-Hitchcockian level of control, with Petzold exhibiting a masterful grasp of his actors and scenarios, parcelling out plot twists and ruptures of emotion that have earned him a reputation as a first-rate filmmaker. (To wit, following its premiere at the 2018 Berlinale, Transit is bowing in TIFF’s illustrious Masters program next week.)
Transit marks a significant shift, seeing Petzold cutting ties with lead actress/muse Nina Hoss (who starred in the bulk of the director’s previous films); as well, his long-time co-writer Harun Farocki died in 2014. (Farocki was also Petzold’s teacher and mentor at Berlin’s German Film and Television Academy.) Absent his usual collaborators, Transit unfolds like a singular auteur object – pure-drip Petzold. It’s a war story. A doomed love story. A ghost story. A parable. It’s dark, thrilling and strangely funny, in an absurdist, Kafka-esque way.
And Transit, by design, is productively uncontrolled, even a bit volatile. By transposing Seghers’s source novel to a contemporary moment beset by another, totally different real-world refugee crisis, the film feels suspended between periods and places. It is both familiar and strange. And the Germans, of course, have a word for that: unheimlich. Uncanny. Creepy. Unsettling. Part of this feeling proceeds from the galling verve to make a modern refugee film that is primarily concerned with trials and tribulations of good-looking white Europeans. Transit feels deliberately calibrated to gin up disbelieving reactions, to invite criticism for the manner in which it evades the realities of the ongoing European migrant crisis.
For Petzold, such a radical substitution is meant to stir a sense of acknowledgment, both historical and existential. “In Germany, we have legislation governing asylum laws,” he explains, “and that, of course, was based on the hundreds of thousands who had to flee Germany. And nobody in the world wanted them. We’re talking about white people: jews, homosexuals, communists. No one wanted to accept them. That’s why after 1945, Germany entered into the commitment of letting everyone who was being persecuted into the country to apply for asylum.”
There’s a key scene in Transit that speaks to both its universalism and its particularity. Adrift in the purgatorial French port town of Marseilles, seeking passage across the Atlantic, Georg heads to a friend’s apartment in a dingy ghetto. When he arrives, he finds the flat full of North Africans who have moved in, seemingly overnight. As he opens the door, it’s as if the past and present are colliding.
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“I’ve always considered that scene as a kind of door-opener, and an eye-opener at the same time,” says Petzold. "When Georg opens that door, it’s the present that stares him in the face, that looks him in the eye. The North Africans recognize him. They don’t look at him as if he’s a stranger. The refugees of the past and the refugees of today meet and recognize each other. That’s a bridge between the past and the present.”
Beyond articulating the eternal struggles of the displaced and the stateless, Petzold aims to directly confront Westerners suffering from self-imposed historical amnesia. As he puts it, “After 1945, Germany appeared to be a country that had deleted its hard disc, so to speak.” This idea explodes in Petzold’s previous film, Phoenix, in which Hoss’s haunted Holocaust survivor returns to Berlin to find the postwar city in the throes of Weimar-styled cabarets, as if the war itself had never even happened.
This act of forgetting, or being unstuck in place and time, crops up again and again in Petzold’s movies. His films abound with drifters (Jerichow), the dispossessed (Barbara), and identities remodelled and mistaken (Phoenix). In Transit, the writer-director expands the frame, applying the theme to historical memory. “You always find these stories in cinema,” says Petzold. “People long to have a new life or get rid of old traumas or escape their criminal past. It never works. Because the past keeps popping up. You find it in horror movies and crime movies and whatever else. Cinema loves the present. But the old, repressed things of the past keep popping up and resurfacing, and destroying everything. For me, cinema is the place where you are being presented with a memory of the past."
Beyond being a straight-ahead definition of cinema – which embosses the past performances of actors, the play of light and shadow, and projects it into the present – it offers a thesis statement: for Transit, for Petzold’s body of work, for a historical present that sees a revival of old-fangled political antagonisms and prejudices. Just as Georg has his moment of recognition with a family of emigrés who seem zapped into the film from another dimension (that of our real world), Petzold hopes, with all modesty, to stir similar feelings in the viewer. The famous vow in the long days after the Second World War was, after all, “never again.” It was a promise to extend empathy with vigilance, and recognize a shared humanity across cultural, national and religious lines, across space and time itself.
“From the past, they’re looking at us,” says Petzold, via his madly scribbling interpreter, as he returns to his e-cigarette and the swirling eddies of his own thoughts. “It’s about a promise that is not being kept. It has never been kept. But it is still relevant to us.”
Transit screens at TIFF Sept. 12, 9:30 p.m., Lightbox; Sept. 14, 12 p.m., Lightbox; and Sept. 16, 5 p.m., Scotiabank (tiff.net).
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