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BERLINALE 2018 Competition

Christian Petzold • Director

“If we want to move on, first we have to remember”


- BERLIN 2018: We talked to German director Christian Petzold about his new feature, Transit, starring Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer

Christian Petzold  • Director
(© Schramm Film / Marco Krüger)

In Transit [+see also:
film review
interview: Christian Petzold
interview: Franz Rogowski
film profile
, an adaptation of Anna Seghers’ semi-autobiographical novel, first published in 1944 and exploring the relationships between refugees during the Second World War, Christian Petzold opts for a contemporary setting but doesn’t forget the past. The film was screened in the main competition of the Berlin Film Festival.

Cineuropa: In your film, there is a constant dialogue between the past and the present. Were you ever tempted to emphasise its contemporary side?
Christian Petzold: I have two children, and my son told me: “Don’t show any smartphones in your film.” That makes it outdated rather quickly. When he sees a film from 2009, where someone is using an iPhone 3, he says: “Now that’s an old movie” [laughs]. It’s not about reading signs and trying to pinpoint the exact moment when this film is taking place. I am not talking about time here – I am talking about transit space. The way that history and literature have been dealt with in cinema sometimes is just terrible. It’s more of a re-enactment, where everything is carefully arranged. People go to the cinema for the same reasons my parents used to go to the museum on Sunday – they want to see how Napoleon used to live. But I am not interested in that. As Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 

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In Phoenix [+see also:
film review
making of
interview: Christian Petzold
film profile
, you dealt with themes of identity as well. Is that something you are always interested in?
One could say that it all comes down to me being a cinema enthusiast. I love stories where people try to be someone else or assume somebody else’s identity – like Jack Nicholson in The Passenger. They might do it because they feel their own lives are meaningless or empty, and this new identity will offer something new and fresh. But the problem is that people always carry who they are and where they came from with them, like some kind of a backpack. I think that’s the core of this story – you can’t get out of your own skin. You can’t change who you are, however hard you might try.

Transit could be a pretty straightforward film noir. Did you wonder how many elements you could borrow from that aesthetic without making it seem too artificial?
Hollywood in that period was all about German lighting, German camerawork and German directors, who were refugees themselves – they fled because of the Nazis. These were the people who could transpose the horrors of what they had experienced and the feeling of transit into these images. I talked to my cameraman about all these things. I told him ours wouldn’t be a typical film noir – it will have a lot of air, a lot of light and colours, and a certain sense of levity. I made it clear that it should never feel artificial. Instead, we should feel close to these people, which is also why I was afraid of using voiceovers – they’re rarely any good. But I found some great examples, like Barry Lyndon or Jules and Jim. What I don’t like is a voiceover that has a God-like position. Our narrator is not a God – he is a part of the story. He has his own life, which is why he tends to tell the odd lie or two. Or maybe he just remembers things wrongly.

How did Anna Seghers’ book resonate with you when you first discovered it?
Transit was actually a major reference for both Harun Farocki [a German filmmaker and Petzold’s collaborator, who passed away in 2014] and me. We both share certain biographical elements, and that includes the experience of being and living as a refugee. We always felt a keen sense for stories about people in transit, like The Asphalt Jungle, where all Sterling Hayden wants is to get back to his farm. This is what cinema should be about: it should be about people in transit. Home is for television.

Marseille, where you shot the film, doesn’t have the best reputation.
It’s tough and corrupt, but also very self-confident and relaxed. When we were there, they were shooting the second season of Marseille with Gerard Depardieu, and we were sharing the same catering tents. So there was Depardieu sipping his wine on one side and us on the other, not sipping wine, because we are German. And nobody cared, because it’s not a vain city – it just carries on. And also, when I was writing the movie, I envisioned someone like Jean-Paul Belmondo playing the main part – someone who likes to play around with girls, who maybe steals from them and doesn’t care about tomorrow. Then I saw Franz Rogowski and thought, “That’s him!” He has something that all real heroes share, which is a sense of melancholy. Steven Seagal is not a hero – he is never sad!

Do you think that history still influences the Germany of today?
Look at where we are. We are sitting in Potsdamer Platz – there are only two buildings that date back to the Second World War, and this used to be an orphanage where Bruno S lived. This city – and our country – is marked by history, but at the same time, it’s very modern. My life has been marked by history, too. If we want to move on, first we have to remember.

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