Feted with a full-career retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center starting this Friday, German filmmaker Christian Petzold’s career is inextricable from that of his longtime collaborator and friend, the pioneering film essayist and multimedia artist Harun Farocki, who died in 2014. Farocki brought a clinical eye to the consolidation of neoliberal and military-industrial capitalisms in the wake of the Cold War, and Petzold’s work carries on this tradition, as well as that of the formal gamesmanship endemic to an old hero, Alfred Hitchcock. Nothing is simple in his films, even if the moral outrage of his extraordinary adaptation of Anna Seghers’s 1944 novel Transit—about the plight of refugees escaping Nazi-occupied Europe through the port town of Marseilles—rings clear as a bell. This past February, I had the chance to speak to Petzold after Transit‘s premiered at Berlinale.
Break down for me the exact nature of your collaboration with Harun Farocki on Transit. People are saying you co-wrote every word of the screenplay. Meanwhile, I had read online that it was his favorite book, and you two had been preparing the adaptation when he died.
I first met Harun in the late ‘80s. We became fast friends, and he was actually the one who gave me the book Transit. It always served as the number one reference for all of the screenplays Farocki and I developed together. What I find so great about it is that its concept of heimat, which roughly translates as homeland, gives way to the story being told and the way it’s told. So, from then on, more or less once a year, we’d read the book together.
One day, we came up with the sick idea of adapting the book itself into a film. First, I wrote it as period picture, and I got a lot of funding for that, but it was actually no fun. One week, after Germany became the so-called world champion in soccer, Harun passed away. I put the treatment aside, because it just made me sad to keep working on it, and I did two contemporary films. Then I went to the United States to resume writing that screenplay, because I think you can best write about Germany when you’re far away from Germany.
So, I kept on writing for another two weeks, in California and Nevada. And then I forgot my laptop in the car at Twentynine Palms, and the hard disk was burnt to a crisp. The guy at the Apple Store tried to console me. He was telling me that the data could not be retrieved, but I was relieved, because I realized what I had written so far was completely useless. This is also why I don’t like doing period pieces: You start from a position of free control over everything, the language, the lighting, the costumes. So, this is where I had the idea that this story needed to be transposed to the present.
There are so many instances in Transit of being neither in the 1940s nor the present day. The most obvious one is the old-timey music playing at carousel, at the kiddie park by the beach.
We added as little as possible. The hotel rooms are in their original state. It’s not that we tried to proactively change things. Except, of course, when we decided not to have smartphones in the movie—because my son told me it would age the movie too quickly. It would allow the audience to tell the iPhone year, so to speak, in which the movie would take place.
In the scene you mentioned, there is actually a kind of retro merry-go-round that’s been there in Marseilles for a long time. The music we hear is from the Kaiser-Walzer, by Johann Strauss, played on an alternator organ. It plays there every day. The neighbors must be suicidal. We were told of a Nike shop nearby where the saleswoman suffers from hearing that music every day. In Marseilles, everything is present, coexisting between past and present. It’s true in Berlin too. The lack of synchronicity is what I find so fascinating. Sometimes we have things from the past that just remain unchanged all the way up to the present. Sometimes they’re just a reference, ghostlike, an unresolved reminder. That is the world where Transit takes place.
I had a disagreement at a bar last night. One of the other critics here was saying he didn’t find much to identify with Gyorg. But to me he’s a classic, peripheral, existentialist character.
The idea of identifying with a character or protagonist is criticized within the movie, too, of course. We’re talking about false identities here. In the novel, he’s a first-person narrator and he says himself that before he had to flee the country, he was a nobody. He was nothing, really. He didn’t even know why he was hunted by the Nazis, except that he punched one in the face at one time or another. Apart from that, he wasn’t a really reflective person—just a kind of no-good young man living a carefree life. Both in the book and the film, he only acquires an identity by assuming somebody else’s, which is when he starts to feel things like love, when he learns to make grander gestures, so to speak. I myself can very much identify with him. It’s through the people that learn, who become someone or something else, through cinema.
What do you mean by “become”?
What I mean is that you get to have a story about yourself, about who you are. All these refugees flocking to Europe—they are “nothing,” in the sense that no one listens to them. They have to adapt to everything around them, they have to forget about the things they were carrying with them, and they have to be flexible in the extreme. The possibility of being a protagonist in a story, or of loving and being loved by someone, sharing things with others, of showing solidarity—it’s only possible after becoming “someone.”
My idea for telling the story like I did came from Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. It’s adapted from the book by Raymond Chandler, his best book in my opinion, and it’s really about the last remaining detective with morals. The ones around him are all corrupt, falling prey to the darker side of things. Altman filmed the story in today’s L.A., but his protagonist wears clothes from 1942, drives a car from 1942, has the morals of a detective from 1942. He’s surrounded by modern-day Hollywood, pimps, the mafia, and he tries to act like Phillip Marlowe in a Chandler novel. That’s actually where I got the idea for a yesterday embedded in today’s environment. For that, I think your critic friend might have difficulties identifying with Elliot Gould’s Marlowe too.
My most immediate, superficial response to your film was that you turned around a criticism of nativism—Orban, Putin, Trump, Le Pen, and so on. But then, against the sweep of history, I would think that that’s not giving you, or Harun Farocki, enough credit.
So, Harun and myself, we both believed for a very long time that these things would never, ever happen again—that it had been dealt with, actually, and it was over. For a long time, we just looked at questions and dealt with questions around the context of work, of labor. What are they and where have they disappeared to? We also looked into questions about neoliberalism. What happens to the body of a people, when it’s absorbed into neoliberalism? What turns the citizen into a consumer? Both of us used to be Marxists, back in the day, and I think we believed that whenever something like fascism or nationalism were to rear its head again, it would be, as Marx said, a tragedy returning as a farce. After ‘89, after the reunification of Germany, we were both deeply shocked to find these things happening again. He couldn’t see or experience the past four years, but he would have been shocked to see the resurgence of these discussions—about race, ethnicity, borders, identity based in blood, exclusion of the other. I would say that this resurgence is somewhat farcical, but at the same time it’s very bloody.