Christian Petzold tells us about finding the past within the present (and vice versa), adapting a novel without re-reading it, and much more.
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.
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 him.
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 anxiety?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.