THE STATELESS IDENTITY - An Interview with TRANSIT writer/director Christian Petzold

Thu, Mar 14th, 2019 to Wed, Mar 20th, 2019

by Steven Prokopy

Although the 1944 Anna Seghers’ novel TRANSIT VISA, upon which the film TRANSIT is based, is set in 1942, just after the Germans invaded France during World War II, German-born writer/director Christian Petzold (PHOENIX, BARBARA) decided that the perilous lives of refugees—especially those who become displaced because of a fascist government—that are depicted in the book are not that different than those living in the 21st century. As a result, he and his now-late writing collaborator Harun Farocki began constructing a screenplay for TRANSIT set in both an undefined time and place that feels both modern and timeless.

Premiering at the Berlin Film Festival a year ago, TRANSIT is the story of a German refugee named Georg (rising star Franz Rogowski), who flees to Marseille and assumes the identity of a writer who has just committed suicide and whose papers Georg just happens to be in possession of. Still planning to leave France soon, his life become enmeshed with that of a young mother and her son, both of whom are also trying to leave the country, as well as an enticing fellow refugee named Marie (Paula Beer). This stateless man with no distinguishing personality traits seems to become a fully formed human being as a result of pretending to be someone else and involving himself in the lives of these desperate people. The question of the film becomes whether Georg’s newfound altruism will conquer his desperation to escape.

We spoke to Petzold recently about his long connection to the source material, the questions of identity that come up in the story, and working for the first time in years without his acting muses Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld. The film is being distributed by Music Box Films and opens at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, March 15. The theater also continues its weekend matinee series of a selection of Petzold’s previous works, including YELLA (screening Sunday, March 17 at 11:30am) and JERICHOW (Saturday and Sunday, March 23 & 24, at 11:30am)

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Question: The more I dig into the history and subject matter of the novel upon which you based your film, the more I’m impressed with the way you have stripped away a sense of specific time and place. How important are those things to this story? It feels like your goal is to make it timeless.

Christian Petzold: Yes. The first draft of the script was done at a time when my friend Harun Farocki was still alive, and it was a real period picture that started in Paris, and we had to worry about costumes and how much money that was going to cost. I remember saying to him “I hate old cars. I hate the people who rent us old cars.” You can see them sometimes on television with bad mustaches, and I don’t like them. [laughs] And I also don’t like that the actors, when they are playing a character in a period picture, they are always acting like they are on stage. They are not cinematographic, because they feel so important, like an old painting in a museum. So I said to Harun “I don’t want to do that.”

On the other hand, the film PHOENIX, which we made before this one, was a period picture, and I there were so many situations I hated to, like when we’d go by in a black Mercedes to Poland to find old, ruined streets. [The Germans] ruined this part of Europe in 1939 by Hitler with bombs and soldiers, and now we came back with fantastic real Mercedes Benz cars and we were well dressed in fantastic suits to make a film—I don’t like this situation. Something is wrong with that. So Harun and I were irritated, and then he died, so I made two other movies for television because I needed some time because I was too sad.

Then I had this idea in the shower—I have my best ideas in the shower; I should take showers 10 times a day to find ideas—that TRANSIT the novel is a transit space, a boarding zone, between Europe and the USA, but also between home and a homeless place. It’s like purgatory. It’s a metaphoric and geographic transit space. But what about it being a transit of time—a vertical transit space between us and history. In our Germany history, the survivors of the fascist times who came back to Germany, they created our laws and Constitution. There was a paragraph in one law—a reaction based on their experience—that said that all people who are in danger because of their sexuality, they political ideology, or religion, they can find a place and asylum in Germany. This was the reaction to the things that Anna Seghers described in her novel.

Nowadays, when we are confronting the complex situation of refugees from Arabia or North Africa or all over the world, they cut this law in Germany. So we have this vertical time transit between 1942 and now. So this idea in the shower showed me the ideas of this novel in our time, where we have this kind of atmosphere.

From a practical point of view, did you have to change anything in the places where you shot to make sure it wasn’t tied to any particular time period. I notice no one uses cel phones, for example.

CP: It’s funny, it’s different than the USA. When you’re in a European city like Marseille, which has a history of 4000 years, you can find houses from the 12th century next to a house built three years ago. In Europe, the don’t destroy the old houses to make new ones; you have the new ones with the old. In that way, TRANSIT feels like an old European city. So it wasn’t a big problem for me. The thing with the cel phones, I never want to use cel phones in movies; I hate them. When I watch a film from five years ago, the character has an iPhone 3, so you know this is an old movie. But when you have Robert De Niro in TAXI DRIVER on a phone with coins, it’s not problem for him; it’s modern [laughs]. Anytime you include any brand of cel phone in movie, you realize that movies are getting older in a much shorter time, right? But the movies of Melville and Scorsese, there is no problem.

The same with wardrobe. I saw BASIC INSTINCT two weeks ago, and it’s so ugly because the wardrobe is so early 1990s. At the same time, François Truffaut makes films with Gérard Depardieu [THE WOMAN NEXT DOOR and THE LAST METRO], and he’s wearing a fantastic shirt and classic jacket, and it’s timeless in a good way, in an elegant way. And BASIC INSTINCT is like the iPhone 3 [laughs].

There are questions about identity in TRANSIT, and you’ve dealt with these themes before in the work. Here, it’s the classic immigrant/refugee dilemma where they are made to feel like something less than human until a government tells them they are. Also, your lead character doesn’t have much of a personality until he takes on the identity of somebody else. Talk about you fascination with the idea of identity.

CP: This is interesting because the actor Franz Rogowski said to me “I’m the only guy with no personality. All of the others have fantastic biographies—they’re architects, composers, Marie was a beautiful muse to a writer—but who am I?” So I wrote down a little biography for him, but he was not satisfied [laughs] “This is not real, this is nothing.” And I said, “But the whole movie is about someone who is reaching a personality based on having the wrong identity.” There’s a quotation by Theodor Adorno: “There is no right life in wrong life,” and I think cinema is the opposite. Cinema is always saying “There could be a right life with the wrong identity.” You can feel real feelings based on wrong structures. He has a stolen identity but he’s received by people with real desires: a boy who wants him as an older brother or father, a girl who’s looking for love and desire. So when he gains this personality, for the first time in his life, he feels pain and empathy. In this moment, by the end of the movie, he is someone.

One of his identifying qualities is his ability to fix things. You focus on that, and it makes him a much more interesting person. Talk about the importance of work and labor to that character.

CP: Anna Seghers was a communist writer, and to her labor was very important, and it was one of the reasons that Harun Farocki loved her books so much. He said “For our whole life, our identity is based on work, on our profession.” When we’re at a party, everybody asks everybody else “What is your profession?” And nobody wants to say they’re unemployed; everybody wants a profession. So when your profession is your identity, why do we almost never see people working in cinema? You never see people work in cinema. Sometimes you see someone in an old Fritz Lang movie working in a factory or this movie by Paul Schrader, BLUE COLLAR, you can see a factory.

But in Anna Seghers’ novel, you learn that labor is erotical. Many people fall in love because someone has a skill, someone can work with horses or repair your washing machine. You can see that his hands are working very well; he’s very calm and concentrating. So I thought about a scene where you see him repairing a radio, and this boy is sitting on the table staring at him—he knows, without any dialogue that this guy who has this skill can be a teacher. And this means you can trust someone. I prefer to create a seduction scene, not with naked thighs; I want to see skills.

I just saw a print of your film BARBARA, and it’s true, you learn so much about these doctor characters from just watching them work and how they are with patients and the other doctors.

CP: I can tell you a little story about that film. Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld, the two lead actors, they worked for two days in a hospital to experience being a doctor—a little like method acting. There was one scene where three doctors are standing in front of these x-rays, looking at them, and they have to talk about them. This scene took more than one day to shoot because all three of them started laughing when we start shooting. They couldn’t stop laughing because they felt ashamed because everything else—how they speak with patients, how they walk through the floors, how they put a needle into something—they have learned. But to stand in front of x-rays, they never learned that, so they feel a bit like liars and they started laughing. So we had to shoot some things out in the country to get them out of that scene for a while, and we had to rewrite the scene to take out the doctor language because they don’t want to lie; they are great actors.

I wanted to ask about your use of a narrator here, which I don’t think you’ve done before. You keep it a bit of a secret for a while who the narrator is. Why did you decide to do that and why did you choose this bartender character to be our eyes into this story?

CP: I think after 30 minutes, the voiceover comes in because I want to show that the movie doesn’t need a narrator. There is nobody who can take us by the hand and lead us through the story; we don’t need that. I want to show that all of these characters have lives of their own, somewhere between our time and their time—perhaps between life and death—that the only guy who also has received the manuscript is the bartender. He’s standing behind his bar, watching all the people passing through on their transit, and some of their biographies he has in his memory, and he’s our storyteller. But he himself is the loneliest person in the world. He’s a little bit like us.

The bar itself is this interesting, important place. It’s neutral ground, a safe space for people moving through, but just outside it’s very dangerous. Was that a real location?

CP: The original bar in the novel exists in Marseille; now there’s a Burger King inside of it, so it wasn’t possible to shoot there. Around two or three days before shooting began, I thought about using the Burger King, but it would be too much like a joke doing that, so I changed my mind. In Marseille, we went 200 meters from the original place to the place we used. It’s the same now as when we used it; you can eat the same pizza. I think we changed the tablecloths because of the color, but all of the places you see in Marseille are the same; we didn’t change anything. There’s a female tour guide who has been there about 20 years who guides people through all of the places in the novel. And now you can also go to the places we used in the movie. She said it’s very interesting because she knows these places and now we’ve made a movie there, and the film uses imagination but we didn’t change anything. It was great to do things like that. And all of these places have doors and many windows, so the outside world is always passing, and you can see it every time, and it’s like you’re in a capsule.

This is also a story of refugees. I’m wondering what you see as the connective tissues between the refugees she was writing about in the ’40s and the refugees who might pass through such a place today.

CP: I see more differences than similarities. The refugees in Marseille in 1942 had to leave their country, and the refugees from North Africa, they want to leave their country because there is no future anymore. These countries are destroyed economically and by civil wars, but it’s not the situation like the Holocaust where you have to go out of Germany or else you would die if you stayed here. But the similarities are that the people who live in Marseille, they don’t like the refugees, they don’t want them, just like Trump doesn’t want to have Mexicans in the USA. For them, refugees are like a virus; they say, “You are also responsible for our situation, but we want to build up walls and live in gated communities.” In either time, no one said to the refugees, “Here’s a place for you to stay. Tell us your story. Where are you coming from?” In the 17th and 18th centuries, the strangers coming to cities, towns and villages, they had stories, and people were curious. They wanted to hear tales from the outside world and hear their music. But in 1942 in Marseille, no one wanted to hear those stories.

I’ve heard you refer to this film as the third film in a trilogy your jokingly refer to as “Love in the Times of Oppressive Systems,” and you say that you have looked at your films as groups of three works. When you finish a trilogy, are you done with that theme? Will the next three be about something completely different?

CP: Yeah, I always hold that I’ll change to something different. To think of trilogies, there’s a very good quotation by Fritz Lang: “When you have two people, they build a family; when you have three people, they build up a society.” So for me to make a trilogy, it’s like me building a village or a little community—to not just make one or two movies. It’s like little serials. When I do this, I’m more relaxed. It’s not like I’m trying to make CITIZEN KANE; it’s more like THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. So now I’ll work on a new trilogy about German romantic subjects of the 19th century, which still works today. The first is about water, next will be about fire, and the third is about earth. I start shooting the first one in June.

Your lead actors in TRANSIT are new to you, after years of using several of the same actors from movie to movie. Did you deliberately make that change away from Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld?

CP: There are two reasons. The first is that I’m a big fan of John Ford, and I always liked that he had this stock company. Many directors do this, work with the same people for a long time. In a group, you can create more. You don’t have to invent the cinema each time; you can work in a collective discourse. I’ve made six movies with Nina Hoss, as well as done theater with her. We made the decision to take a little break. Now the next movie with also have Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer, the same actors as TRANSIT, and much like that movie, they are stories about people on their way to becoming adults. They have no personality; they are too young; they are looking for something. Nina is always playing someone who is adult, who is losing her adultness. So the trilogy after this trilogy could be a Nina Hoss trilogy. I hope so.

Thank you so much. Best of luck with it.

CP: Thank you very much. I hope to meet you in Chicago some day.

TRANSIT opens at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, March 15th. CLICK HERE for Showtimes & Advance Tickets.