Christian Petzold is an artist who observes the world with the eye of a watch maker, images and sounds that in the care of his hands become moving universes in miniature. Time seems to slow down to a halt in his movies, the minutiae of life explored in great detail. Behind the camera he frames the reality of present day Germany, of Europe, and he ponders over the past, the implications of war and subsequent healing. On the screen he draws meditative lines into the future. In his films he’s not afraid to confront viewers with ambiguity, of portraying humans in ravaging conflict, the myriad facets of choice and competing emotions. He’s an acrobat reaching out to the skies of visual prose.
This fall the Goethe Institute in Brussels has invited Christian Petzold to present his latest film, Transit, as well as to meet and interact with the public in a series of talks, including a masterclass. A retrospective of his films will be screened at Cinema Galeries until November 11th.
The story in Transit — based on the novel by Anna Seghers — takes place in Marseille, early 1940’s. Georg, a German refugee, has memorized the author Weidel’s papers and assumes his identity. He is determined to use Weidel’s visa assurance from the Mexican embassy. Everything changes when Georg falls in love with the mysterious Marie.
During his short stay in Brussels, Christian Petzold speaks with Brussels Express about his love for literature, film making, Germany’s recent history, and more.
Transit. Why did you want to make it into a movie? What was the motivation?
The book by Anna Seghers is one of my favorite novels. With my friend Harun Farocki we used to go and play football every week. On one of these occasions I told him about a book by author Rolf Dieter Brinkmann – I told him it was the best — and he said, “Have you read Anna Seghers?” No, I told him. And why would I? I found her work uninteresting. “You are an idiot,” he said. “Just read it.”
After that game, which we lost, I read the book and was entranced. And later it became a reference of my work with him. I really saw him as a mentor.
The movie deals with stories of exile, with people on the outskirts of society. These are people who are longing to create a life story for themselves.
What can you extrapolate from what happens in Transit and current day Europe?
These people, the people whose lives you see in Transit, had an effect in post-war Germany. These were the people who, based on their experiences, shaped the German constitution. Paragraph XVI says something along the lines of, “Never again should it be possible that people are not accepted into Germany, or that they die in some sort of neutral zone.”
But we know that in the 90’s, when the first asylum seekers began to arrive, this paragraph was somewhat overlooked, perhaps deliberately. Some people wanted to remove this paragraph from the constitution. You could say that in the 1940’s some people were not allowed to leave Europe and they died. These days people are not allowed to get into Europe and plenty of them wind up dying. And so to me, these are remarkable correspondences.
You’ve explored German history and recent past in your movies. What have you learned in the process?
When I was 15 I watched the film ”Alice in the Cities” by Wim Wenders. I only watched it because the music is by the band called Can. The story takes place in Wuppertal and in the city there’s one ice-cream shop called Taormina. There is a boy who buys an ice-cream, and with the money he has left he puts the coin into a jukebox and a song by Kenneth Heath begins to play.
And so at that moment the world of cinema opened up to me. Wuppertal was magical and realistic at the same time. All of this to say that you can have the same kind of experience when you think of the Red Army Faction (RAF), the GDR, the post war years. These are experiences that I didn’t live myself but that I’d heard of and read about.
East and West Germany often appear in your work. Is there a truly unified Germany?
Both my parents came from GDR. They both fled, never really felt at home in West Germany, which was not terrible by any standards, but they always had the feeling of being in exile. Every summer we would go to the GDR and for me it was a bizarre experience. I noticed that people spoke the same language, they had read the same books as I had, Goethe and Schiller, and all the others but there was something different in the air.
To this day I can immediately recognize when someone comes from East Germany. Before and during the war the Nazis destroyed any form of bourgeoisie. In the West, after the war, there was a rebirth of the bourgeoisie, which did not happen in the East. That also, in my opinion, explains how foreigners are perceived by people who grew up and lived in the former GDR.