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In 1938/39, Anna Seghers wrote in a letter to the literary theorist Georg Lukács: “This reality of the time of crisis, the war, etc. […] firstly, it has to be endured, has to be looked into the eye and secondly, it must be formed.” Watch the following scene from…Discuss Seghers’s statement in a short essay and take Petzold’s film Transit as your example to discuss the role of artists as chroniclers of historical events, living conditions, experiences and feelings. (500 words)


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Seventh Row
Christian Petzold discusses ​Transit
Christian Petzold tells us about finding the past within the present (and vice versa),
adapting a novel without re-reading it, and much more.
Franz Rogowski in Christian Petzold’s ​Transit (credit: Christian Schulz)
In ​Transit​, the new film from German director Christian Petzold, the city of Marseille and the time
period in which the film is set are almost unrecognisable. Unlike most dramas set during World
War Two, this one does not feature the familiar backdrop of pastel costumes and dusty streets
which usually marks a story firmly in the past. Rather, there is a hybrid of present-day and
wartime objects: there are no mobile phones or computers, but the police wear modern riot
gear; people use typewriters yet they wear modern clothes.
Though adapted from Anna Seghers’ 1942 novel set during World War Two, Petzold’s
adaptation could just as well be unfolding in the present.
But more than an ingenious trick to play on the viewers, the atemporal and anonymous
character of the setting also reflects the central character’s personality. Georg (Franz Rogowski)
doesn’t pay attention to his surroundings because he is just passing through — in transit. For all
he cares, this could be any port, as long as it allows him to leave for Mexico. But as he meets
other people and comes to grow attached to them, this transitory place becomes almost a
home, and he finds himself profoundly changed.
In our interview, Petzold elaborates on finding the past within the present (and vice versa),
adapting a novel without re-reading it, working with his actors, and much more.
Seventh Row (7R): ​The film is set in present-day Marseille, but it feels like it could be taking
place anywhere, at any time: the clothes that characters wear wouldn’t be completely out of
place in the 1940s, and the city could be any port. Was this in order to make the problems of
the characters feel more direct to the audience?
Christian Petzold (CP):​ ​My producer, like most producers, is always thinking of money. He said
to me, “Marseille is a very expensive city. It’s a bit corrupt, and you have to pay a lot of people
there in order to make a movie there. Let’s do it in another town, like Le Havre. It’s not corrupt;
it’s cheaper.” I said, “We can’t do this. It has to be Marseille.” Not just because the novel is set
there, but also because Marseille is a city of desire.
The German philosopher Walter Benjamin loved it so much, he wrote a book called Marseille.
Marseille is freedom. It’s a port: you can find ships going to New York City, to Acapulco…
There’s prostitution, corruption, but it’s also one of the most fantastic cities in the world. So I had
to do it in Marseille. It’s a city with a fantastic history, a place where people go to make new
experiences. But in the film, this city is a prison for all these people. They can’t leave. It was
very important for me to show Marseille as a really special city.
Franz Rogowski in Christian Petzold’s ​Transit (credit: Christian Schulz)
7R: ​The main character starts the film as quite detached from everything and everyone. He
seems to think this is just a transitory place, that he’s not going to stay here and shouldn’t get
attached to people. But by the end of the film, he’s very attached to some characters and does
things for them that he wouldn’t have done at the beginning of the film. So it’s interesting that
you describe Marseille as this city of desire, because Georg doesn’t seem to treat it that way.
He just seems to be passing through.
CP: ​Georg is the only character in the film who has no identity. He’s a little bit like a small- town
criminal. He has never read a book before. He’s never really had an education. He’s never
loved before.
The people who went to Marseille in the 19th and 20th century, they wanted to try their luck as
criminals. They would go to Marseille to find cheap money and cheap girls. But the refugees,
they were architects, composers, writers, intellectuals — these people had a biography.
Georg has no biography. I think a movie always has to tell the story of someone who is
becoming something else. The character must change throughout the story. He reads the first
book of his life; he falls in love for the first time; he finds loyalty; he finds a child who believes in
7R: ​In the film, we know that in other cities, off-screen, people are being arrested, killed, and put
into concentration camps. This isn’t happening, or at least not yet, in Marseille, but there is still
an anxiety running through the film: the unsettling fact that we don’t know anything about Georg;
the odd sensation that the time period is uncertain; and the strange anonymity of the city. Were
you trying, through choices of costumes, setting, and character, to give a sense of this strange
CP: ​When we sat each evening in Marseille and talked about our day, about the shoot, we
were always sitting in front of houses, in bistros, bars, or pizzerias. On the buildings, there
were signs with a name underneath, indicating where famous people had lived.
‘I think a movie always has to tell the story of someone who is becoming
something else.’ –Christian Petzold
People are always going through this city. I was interested in people who are on the run, who
are in movement, who can’t stay somewhere. And they are in a harbour. In French, the word for
harbour is ‘port’, which is similar to ‘porte,’ meaning door. The harbour is like an opening. But
these doors are closed, and the people can’t move.
They’re surrounded by history. There’s this quotation by the German philosopher Theodor
Adorno that says: “When we ask ourselves what Hegel means to us today, this is a bad
question. We have to ask: what do we mean before Hegel?” I think this opens a door between
past and present.
In our contemporary times, I’m in Marseille with refugees from North Africa, who are living there
without papers in an illegal way. And at the same time, we have those plaques on the houses
about people who lived there in 1942, who were in a situation where they wanted to leave
Marseille. I had this idea of a meeting between this historical stream of refugees who wanted to
leave Europe, and these refugees coming from North Africa who want to go to Europe to find
their luck. There are these two movements linking the two periods.
Lilien Batman, Franz Rogowski, Christian Petzold, Transit ​(credit: Christian Schulz)
7R: ​The little boy that Georg becomes friends with is mixed-race, which would seem less likely
in 1940s Marseille, but very likely now.
CP:​ ​In the book, there is also a little boy, but he is French. He complains that all the people he
meets are just in transit, staying here for a few days or a month, then leaving him. He can’t
stand this anymore.
‘I’m in Marseille with refugees from North Africa, who are living
there without papers. At the same time, we have those plaques
on the houses about people who lived there in 1942, who
wanted to leave.’ –Christian Petzold
We have this boy sitting there with no father, a mother who can’t speak and can’t hear, and no
friends. He’s very lonely; he sees Georg as a big brother and almost as a substitute father.
Later, when Georg is returning to the apartment to meet the boy again, after Marie has left,
there are refugees from nowadays in the apartment instead. The apartment is a door between
the past and our time.
7R:​ This isn’t your first time adapting a novel. What is your process? I’ve heard people say
that while your film is different from the novel in many ways, it is in keeping with its spirit.
CP:​ ​Two of my favourite directors, Eisenstein and Rossellini, I heard that they had really big
beds. I think they were nine square meters. It was my dream to have a bed like this at home.
In the case of ​Transit​, I’d made the decision to make a script out of this fantastic novel. I never
read the novel again. I just laid down in my bed — I haven’t got the nine square meter bed;
mine is closer to three — and I tried to remember the book. I wrote down the biographies of
the characters, for example, and the storyline, just from my mind. Always in the afternoon. You
can’t sleep very deeply in the afternoon, but it’s a good time to dream. So I wrote down the
script while in my bed, without reading the novel again. I’m really sure, and people have told
me, that this novel is very popular in the East part of Germany. When we had discussions after
the premiere in Berlin, people from the East side told me that the film is totally different from
the novel, but that it’s still the book. It’s interesting. I like that very much.
Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Christian Petzold, Transit ​(credit: Christian Schulz)
7R:​ We don’t see Marie a lot in the film, but she is a very moving character just through her
actions and the little details about her.
CP: ​The actors had read the novel again — not because they don’t have nine square meters
bed, but because they wanted to understand the characters better. Paula Beer, the actress
who plays Marie, is very intelligent. She said to me, “I’m a little bit astonished. 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. And the name Maria — in the port, there are so many sailors’ songs where the
woman’s name is Marie.”
She said, “I need a body, I don’t want to be an idea.” So she worked by herself on her body. I
remember, when we were looking for the clothes for the character, she said, “I need shoes that
are very fine but that I can run with.” So we had to buy shoes in Spain, for more than 2000
Euros. She could walk and run through the streets. It helped her not to be just an object of
male imagination. I liked that very much. Every time when an actor says, “I need this; I need
that,” the people from the production company complain and call him or her a diva. But she
was totally right.
On the one hand, Marie is a little bit like a ghost, like a phantom. On the other hand, she has
sweat; she has skin; she has a body; she walks.
7R: ​How did you work with Franz Rogowski, who plays Georg? He starts as quite a blank
character, who then goes through many changes. He’s got a very expressive face, but his
performance remains really subtle.
CP: ​In Germany, we have a big problem because most of the actors are coming from the stage.
They can express very well. But cinema isn’t the art of expression; I think it’s more about
impression. I prefer people who hide their feelings to people who make commercial
advertisement out of their pain.
‘Cinema isn’t the art of expression; I think it’s more
about impression.’ –Christian Petzold
He’s also from the stage, but he’s a dancer. I wanted to show someone on the run, and Georg
can work with his body. He can jump over walls; he has this skill. But what he doesn’t have is a
biography, an identity. The character has to learn what it means to be guilty, to be loyal, to be a
part of a society.
In the beginning, he’s not part of the community. He’s by himself. He’s a little bit egocentric.
He’s fighting for himself. He’s also a little bit exhausted, and he’s not interested in the world. At
the end of the movie, he’s totally interested in the world. He speaks to people, he looks at the
world, and he feels for it. I like very much when you have this development.
7R: ​At the beginning of the film, Georg is used to leaving people behind. During the film, he
learns what it’s like to be left behind. Yet he doesn’t completely close himself off from the world
after this painful experience.
CP:​ ​In the film, Marie says that all the people who have been left, they have culture, books and
music. But the people who leave, they don’t have a culture. And the characters in the film, in this
exile situation, they are working to have a culture of their own.
Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Christian Petzold, Transit ​(credit: Christian Schulz)
7R: ​There’s a bit in the film where we find out that the narrator of the film is a bartender. It
seems to echo the way in which Georg seems to start taking real pleasure in the little things of
the city, like walking in the street, going to the bar, going to the restaurant — things that are
unavailable in a concentration camp or in a war. Going to a bar and talking to someone that you
don’t know feels like a rare pleasure for Georg. In another film, this could feel like just a
narrative device.
CP: ​The first time I was in the USA, I went to Santa Barbara. I think I was 23 or 24 years old. I
had read so many books by Raymond Chandler, and I went to a bar where Chandler had set a
scene. I talked to the bartender for an hour, about Germany, about the differences between
football and soccer… I thought, “This is a fantastic country! You can talk to people. They’re all
open-hearted. You can discuss with anybody. They’re curious and interested.” The next day, I
went back into this bar, went to have my beer and my hamburger there, and the bartender didn’t
recognise me!
You are talking to yourself when you are talking to a bartender. It’s the problem of the refugee.
My idea in ​Transit ​was that the bartender was our history. In this case, all the refugees are
talking to him, telling him their stories, their desires, their moods, and he’s the only one who
could be the museum of the refugees and tell their oral history.
Listen to our podcast on ​Transit (​
Elena Lazic
Elena Lazic is a French student and writer based in London who has written for
Little White Lies,​ ​Sight and Sound a
​ nd ​The Guardian​.
© 2020 ·​ ​Seventh Row ​(​​)
Source: ​
“In Germany you seem to need solid ground under your
In his outstanding drama “Transit” Christian Petzold tells about escape in Europe of the present
and the past. A conversation about harsh reviews, museum films and what the avant-garde
actually is.
By ​Hannah Pilarczyk
04/05/2018​,​ 05:48 p.m.
In his new film “Transit” Christian Petzold dares an experiment that is as simple as it is
astonishing: he stages Anna Seghers’s novel of the same name about a group of Germans who
want to flee from America to the Nazis in 1941 from Marseille, in contemporary Marseille without historical staffage, but with many cross-references to totalitarianism, flight and
persecution yesterday and today. After the film was celebrated at its premiere at the Berlinale, it
will be released in German cinemas on April 5.
SPIEGEL ONLINE:​ Mr. Petzold, you have different approaches to your film: you
can approach it through the present, the past, the dead, the living, the book template or
the noir films to which you refer. What was your own first access to the material?
Petzold:​ Anna Seghers’s book – or rather: the idea I had of it. As a boy, my uncle gave
me a record by cabaret artist Wolfgang Neuss, on which Neuss made fun of various
naturalistic poets – including Anna Seghers. The number was “Has our people been
the pitties since Gottfried Benn in the pail?” So I had the idea that Segher’s gruesome
Gerhard Hauptmann naturalism would write.
SPIEGEL ONLINE:​ Where did the change of mind come from?
Petzold:​ When I drove with ​Harun Farocki ​(his long-time co-screenwriter, editor’s
note)​ to football as usual on Saturdays in 1987, we were talking about literature and I
said – without ever reading Anna Seghers! – that that would be the very last thing.
Then Harun turned right and asked me if I had one on the waffle. Would I have read
“Transit”? I immediately made up for it and called him on Wednesday to tell him how
great I thought the novel was.
SPIEGEL ONLINE:​ What did you like about “Transit”?
Petzold:​ Seghers writes an incredibly beautiful German that I haven’t read in a long
time. At the same time, her literature was already on the trip to America. I had read a
lot of Anglo-American literature like William Faulkner and Charles Willeford, but
also crime novels. What I liked about it was that the narrator often acted like an
accomplice between protagonists and readers, like a bartender listening to a guest
telling him why he beats his wife every day. I found this narrative figure of the
bartender in “Transit” – so the novel was in transit for me: between Europe and the
USA and their various literatures.
SPIEGEL ONLINE:​ Was it a topic between you and Farocki to film the book back
Petzold:​ Never. But it has accompanied us through all of our projects.
SPIEGEL ONLINE:​ To what extent?
Petzold:​ We were convinced that what Seghers describes is the cinema. The cinema
room itself is a transit room in which we are present and absent at the same time. And
the cinema tells of people in transit, of people who have left something and have not
yet arrived elsewhere. All the criminals who share their loot in hotel rooms, all the
people who have lost love, all the people who return from a civil war – they are transit
travelers. Seen in this way, all my films are also films about transit.
SPIEGEL ONLINE:​ “Transit” also marks a transition in your work. After the two
historical films ​”Barbara”​ and ​”Phoenix” you​ feel your way back into the present. Had
you previously shrunk from the present?
Petzold: ​After “Phoenix” I actually had no desire to completely recreate a historical
situation. It’s hard work to turn the world into a studio – to block roads, to throw
yourself in front of modern cars so that they don’t drive through the picture. This leads
to a past museum: as if it were closed and we could examine it from a position of
superiority. I then considered which historical films I like and found that they all
made their way into the present. Be it “Portrait d’une jeune fille” by Chantal Akerman
or “Barry Lindon” by Stanley Kubrick: All these films are so confident in their past
that they look back on us. I wanted to achieve that with “Transit”. To create a state of
limbo in which the times overlap suddenly seemed completely logical to me. It was
then very difficult to convey it to others.
SPIEGEL ONLINE:​ I can imagine that. German cinema actually likes it when
history is exhibited like in a museum, which you take a look at and then move on.
Petzold:​ When I first introduced the project, I said that the flow of refugees from
Africa who currently want to go to Europe via Marseille would meet in my film the
flow of refugees who wanted to leave Europe in 1941 via Marseille. Then everyone
understood that. I can’t tell anything about the flow of refugees from Africa – I don’t
know anything about it. It also seems presumptuous to put myself in the way of
someone trying to get to France from the Congo. I can only take note of such people
and respect them. But I can only tell our story.
SPIEGEL ONLINE:​ The stories from “Transit” are driven by the advance of the
Nazis in France. Why is this more “our” history than the current one of refugees?
Petzold:​ I just wanted to make it clear that I am not going to show refugee inflatables
on the Mediterranean. The stories in the film are clearly aimed at us: Our current
asylum paragraph is based on the experiences described in “Transit”. When National
Socialism was defeated and the survivors returned to Germany, it was their reports
that created the Asylum Clause. The fact that it is now rewritten and ultimately
virtually abolished has something to do with the current flow of refugees. In this
respect, “our” and “their” history flow togeth …
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