In his film Phoenix, director Christian Petzold considered Germany’s past as unresolved in the present by proving the Trümmerfilm (see earlier writing on this here) to still have thematic resonance with modern audiences. Petzold’s film reminds audiences that post-war guilt carries over to this day. In his follow-up, Transit (2018), Petzold repositions the tension of past (on the screen) and present (in the theater) to coexist within the diegetic world of his film. In conflating the 1940s with the 2010s, Transit opens itself up to a larger array of interpretations. The film’s protagonist, a German refugee named Georg, navigates a city that looks contemporary: cars, clothes, and architecture. However, we soon realize that Georg is fleeing Nazis who are en route to occupy his city of residence, Marseille. With a lack of a historical framework to rely on, we are placed in a state of “transit” ourselves. We must reflect on whether the issues of existential and physical displacement, surveillance, and xenophobia presented are those of the past, or whether they have only been exacerbated by contemporary conditions. In this context, the fact that Transit is a German film is particularly significant.
In an interview about the film, Petzold describes that “in Germany, we have the Basic Law with an asylum clause which grants asylum to anyone who’s fleeing persecution for their political beliefs, religion, sexual orientation, etc. It’s a responsibility that we as German must assume because of our history (Petzold).” In the past sixty years, Germany has indeed become increasingly multicultural and has come to be understood as Einwanderundland (land of immigration–see previous writing here). Immigrants from across Europe and the Middle East initially came to Germany after the war to provide labor in exchange for higher wages. Many of which remained in the country with their families after perceiving a higher quality of life. This was initially frowned upon by German officials who offered monetary incentives for immigrants to return to their country of origin. In Transit, characters can only obtain visas under the promise that they will not stay. However, after recognizing the substantial numbers of immigrants that had now made a home for themselves, Germany legalized non-native acquisition of citizenship in 2000. Since then, the country has slowly assumed its new identity as Einwanderungsland, granted citizenship to immigrants, and provided asylum for millions of refugees.
As Petzold mentions, this inclusion was a responsibility of Germany given its xenophobic history–one Germans wanted to distance themselves from. In the same interview, he comments that “we’re seeing a rise of the very same vernacular and rhetoric that led to disasters in the 1940s like “nations,” “borders,” “identity”” (Petzold). With a renewed insistence on border control–stemming from a rise in right-wing extremism–bureaucracy once again displaces bodies from their homes. In Transit, Petzold aims to show how the rise in fascism and xenophobia within contemporary Germany comes dangerously close to, or even mirrors, wartime conditions. In fact, at the time of the film’s release, the asylum clause in Germany had been discontinued.
However, Petzold is not just concerned with issues specific to Germany. Transit is his most globally resonant film to date. Petzold sets his filmtemporary residence. Within Marseilles, the protagonist, Georg, comes into contact with other refugees of diverse backgrounds. The city is presented as a microcosm of all those in flux, politically and existentially. Although Georg is German, his backstory is intentionally vague as we see him navigate foreign spaces. He speaks many different languages and assumes various identities; Georg becomes the blank canvas for all those forced into a precarious existence, desperately seeking stability. Petzold uses the character of Georg to mirror the state all refugees are facing. He forgoes political and cultural specificity to connect the refugee crisis to a modern existential condition. As Margarete Landwehr argues, “the transitory existence of Petzold’s war refugee serves as an extreme example of the instability of modern life, which allows spectators to identify and empathize with migrants’ unpredictable journeys” (Landwehr).
To avoid the problematic implication of generalizing all refugee crises—reducing them to a universal condition—Petzold doesn’t skirt the specific entirely. There are multiple scenes where Georg attempts to obtain a “transit visa” at the French consulate. While in the waiting room, Georg hears the stories of many refugees and their specific conditions that mirror real-life situations–historic and contemporary. The crowds at the consulate are not homogenized, but rather each member has their specific backstory which they voice. Georg acts as the audience’s guide in understanding the various situations that brought those he meets to Marseilles–specifically those who face a tragic end. Georg reads the letters of a communist writer. He helps a deaf woman find a doctor while she stays in the city illegally. He has many run-ins with a suicidal Jewish woman fleeing the Nazis. He even comes in contact with a Syrian family in hiding. In avoiding a single perspective, Georg’s, Petzold raises issues of intersectionality within refugee crises and how not all are equal. Yet, Transit proves that the universal can still be found in the specific.
Petzold’s film is global in its relevance not just to pressing political crises, but also an experience of destabilization. The intentional ambiguity on Petzold’s behalf renders the film thematically accessible on a global scale. Connections can be drawn to nationally specific issuesdigitalization, political histories, life under late-capitalism, or existential issues. This is a non-exhaustive list that suggests Transit’s achievement in making a truly contemporary and timeless film. Although not without its flaws, Petzold’s nuanced approach is cathartic and critical for an audience searching for home—whatever that connotes. In this, Transit speaks to everyone.
Su, Zhuo-Ning. “Christian Petzold on ‘Transit,’ the Refugee Crisis, ‘The Sopranos,’ and Cinematic Rules.” The Film Stage, 17 Dec. 2019, thefilmstage.com/christian-petzold-on-transit-the-refugee-crisis-the-sopranos-and-cinematic-rules/.
Landwehr, M.J. Empathy and Community in the Age of Refugees: Petzold’s Radical Translation of Seghers’ Transit. Arts 2020, 9, 118. https://doi.org/10.3390/arts9040118
Pilarczyk, Hannah. “Berlinale: Transit Von Christian Petzold Und Dovlatov Von Alexej German.” DER SPIEGEL, DER SPIEGEL, 17 Feb. 2018, www.spiegel.de/kultur/kino/berlinale-transit-von-christian-petzold-und-dovlatov-von-alexej-german-a-1194066.html.