“First as Tragedy, Then as Tragedy: on Christian Petzold’s ‘Transit’” by Oscar Mardell

They say about this land that the projectiles of the last war unearthed the projectiles of the one before.

– Anna Seghers, The Seventh Cross (trans. Margot Bettauer Dembo)


But war, of course, consists not only of projectiles but of peripatetics: every legion of soldiers produces another of refugees. And few have been more sensitive to this facet of conflict than Seghers herself, whose 1944 novel Transit showed that ‘war’ is not merely ‘Hell’ but Purgatory also, not just ‘The End’ for the deployed but a ghastly intermediary for the displaced – whom it condemns to wander indefinitely, and to unearth, thereby, the displaced of conflicts prior.


Seghers’ novel takes place in 1942. We don’t know the narrator’s name, only that he is twenty-seven and has escaped Nazi concentration camps in Germany and Rouen. En route to Marseilles, he agrees to deliver a letter to Weidel – a German writer living in Paris and famed for his Leftist sympathies. The letter is from Weidel’s wife, a request to cancel her previous request for a divorce. “Meet me in Marseilles”, it says. But Weidel has already committed suicide, leaving behind a suitcase full of letters and the manuscript of an unfinished novel.

Marseille is bursting with people desperate to flee the Nazis. This is harder than it sounds. You’re not permitted to remain unless you have official approval, and if you’re discovered without it, you’re taken away. But you can’t get it unless you can prove that you’re leaving. You usually need a job-offer to get a visa, and you always need a visa to get a ticket for passage. But even if you have all three, you still need transit visas for all the stops on the way. And the process of applying for these is so arduous that, even if they’re granted, something else tends to expire before they arrive. So the whole debacle must begin again.[1] The narrator, a concentration camp escapee with no release certificate, doesn’t stand a chance against this labyrinthine bureaucracy: the moment he approaches any authority, he’ll be handed over to the Fascists. So he assumes instead the identity of a refugee named Seidler.

The dead writer, however, has a visa, a ticket, and passage. His wife haunts the cafés, hopeful that he is still alive and that he has received her letter. She can’t escape, and can’t even remain therefore, unless his documents name her as his spouse. When the authorities get it into their heads that Seidler is Weidel, that ‘Weidel’ is merely Seidler’s – so, the narrator’s – pseudonym, the narrator doesn’t correct them. Things are further complicated when the narrator falls in love with Weidel’s wife, and complicated again by the fact that she has already fallen in love with a doctor bound for South America. Transit offers no clear resolution, no thread through the maze. As several have noted, it’s like a nightmarish inversion of the idealism which concludes Curtiz’s ‘Casablanca’, released the same year.


Petzold’s ‘Transit’ tells [virtually] the same story as Segher’s Transit, only it omits all direct references to World War II, and transposes the action to now – or, as Charles Taylor recently put it for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “a slightly stylized now”:

there are no computers, no smart phones. Bureaucrats have to stamp papers by hand. People call on each other at their home or their hiding place, or arrange to meet discreetly in a cafe.[2]

On the face of it, Petzold’s reason for this transposition would seem fairly straightforward: it appears to offer an effective means of preserving the memory of those displaced in World War II, of bringing those dead to life. For it is difficult to bury within the annals of History the plight of characters who fit so seamlessly within the present. Had ‘Transit’ been furnished with the period trappings of 1942, moreover, the result would have been virtually indistinguishable from the wave of World War II nostalgia with which we are inundated – by Anglophone cinema, particularly – more forcefully each year. And that nostalgia is kind of tasteless: no one of sound mind feels genuine longing for a time in which some sixty million lost their homes, and [at least] seventy million their lives. Right?

Or perhaps this is the point. World War II nostalgia is probably better understood not as a direct pining for Wartime itself, but as a late incarnation of hauntology – of what Mark Fisher [a.k.a. K-Punk] once defined as a “nostalgia for lost futures”. We’ve been lapping up movies like ‘Their Finest’, and ‘Dunkirk’, and ‘Churchill’, and ‘Darkest Hour’, and ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society’, and ‘The Aftermath’, not because of the world which they purport to represent, but because of the “better world” for which their characters are either waiting or actively fighting. These films yearn for, and so promise, a life rid not only of injustice and tyranny, but of conflict – and therefore displacement – more broadly.

Petzold’s ‘Transit’ doesn’t tease us with this promise; it simply reminds us that is false. In his [outstanding] introduction to New York Review Books’ 2013 edition of Transit, the Australian-born academic Peter Conrad wrote:

The end of the war…did not do away with the misery of displacement and deracination. Today, the characters that Seghers describes are everywhere. People-smugglers cram them into airless trucks and drive them between continents. They wade across the Rio Grande, or crowd into leaky boats to travel from Cuba to Florida or from Indonesia to Australia or from North Africa to Italy. For a while, they slipped out of a camp for Asylum seekers near Calais and make nightly treks on foot through the Channel Tunnel to reach England. They even sometimes stow away in the undercarriages of jets flying from Pakistan to Europe; recently one of them, ejected when the incoming plane lowered its landing gear, plummeted out of the sky onto a suburban street in London.

Those of us who travel for pleasure for pleasure, rather than to save our lives, have our own reasons for sympathising with Transit. We live in a world where people are in constant circulation, where borders have supposedly become porous and distances are abbreviated by jet engines and by electronic communications – yet never has travel been more like travail, bedevilled by bureaucratic obstacles and by the apparatus of security.

“What Seghers perceived as an emergency,” wrote Conrad, “has now become what we call normality”. And in the six years since those words were published, that “normality” has only been further perverted. ‘Transit’, then, doesn’t tease us with lost futures; worse – it taunts us with fulfilled ones. We live in the “better world” built by the Allies, and it looks unnervingly similar to that which they had hoped to escape – except, of course, that we have computers and smart phones.

Hence, the film also imparts upon today’s crisis an awful sense of déjà vu, the feeling that this crisis is somehow a rerun, an uncanny repeat, of 1942. The feeling peaks in a scene which has no precedent in Seghers but is entirely of Petzold’s making. The central character [who has gained a name – Georg – and ceased, moreover, to be the narrator] has befriended Driss – the young son of the friend who first persuaded him to deliver the letter to Weidel – and mends the boy’s broken radio. Straight away, it plays an old folksong:

The codfish comes home.

The ant rushes home.

The day has flown.

Georg sings the song to Driss’s mother who is deaf, while Driss signs the lyrics. The scene is weirdly unsettling, I think, for these reasons: on one hand, the people present cannot “come home” –  as refugees, they have, by definition, no “home” to which they can “come”; on the other, “coming home” feels like an apt way to describe what the refugees of 1942 are doing in this film – fitting snugly within the present. Those who lost their literal “homes” to the War, it seems, are “coming home” in a more abstract sense: returning, like apparitions, to haunt Europe through the medium of the current refugee crisis. In Petzold’s hands, their displacement is temporal as well as geographical.

But of course, this same sense of déjà vu is present in the original. For Seghers, 1942 is already a rerun – both of previous histories and of prehistories. An American consul, for example, is said to resemble:

a Roman official, listening to the emissaries of foreign tribes with their dark and to him ridiculous demands from Gods unknown to him…It was like trying to register every Vandal, Goth, Hun, and Langobard during the “Barbarian Invasion”.

A travel bureau looks like “the administrative forces for the Last Judgement”. A ship leaving for Brazil reminds the narrator of Noah’s Ark. Transit is full of these sudden flashbacks. By transposing its action to the present day, then, the film does not strictly add anything, it only articulates something that was present all along, re-displacing what was always displaced. The time was already out of joint.

It’s for this reason, I suspect, that Petzold adds a question – one which isn’t in the novel, but which appears through several variations in the film: “Who forgets first: those who stay or those who leave?” The common-sense answer would be “those who leave” – they become so caught up in their new lives abroad that the old ones fade from memory. But the film doesn’t actually confirm either way. Driss and his mother escape, but we never hear of them again, and we don’t find out, therefore, whether they forget Georg before he forgets them. Mrs. Weidel also leaves Marseilles, but her ship sinks before she even has time to forget Georg. Before she departs, moreover, she argues that it will be Georg who forgets first. It’s tempting to say that the question is a false one, that crossing the Atlantic is like stepping into Heraclitus’ stream: those who leave cease, thereby, to be themselves; those who stay find their surroundings changed in the wake of the departed. Identity and place aren’t so easily distinguished, nor presence and absence, for the self is always in transit.

But if the film’s chief purpose is to preserve the memory of World War II’s displaced, then the same question begs to be asked of that context too: “Who forgets them first?” Again, the common-sense answer would be those who “leave”. Those who “move on” from the War, who forgive old crimes, abandon old resentment, and focus on forging new ways forward, are the first for whom its tragedies become subject to the forces of amnesia. But there is a strong case for the contrary. Those of us whom the War continues to haunt have also, in a manner of speaking, forgotten.  And that is because this question, too, is a false one: the spectre of the War is fundamentally different from the War itself. By which I don’t simply mean that cultural memory is inaccurate [often it is, but this is beside the point], but that there is an ontological distinction between the thing itself and its representations, between the dead and their ghosts. For Petzold, we cannot bridge the gap, cannot make the past present again. And whenever we try, we are like children trying to sign old folksongs before our mothers: something is irrevocably lost, and condemns us, therefore, to repeat – again.



[1] If I have this wrong, it is not [only] because I am negligent, but because of the dizzying complexity of that debacle.

[2] For Taylor, the removal of computers and smart phones “is a sign of the movie’s directness — Petzold ferrets out everything that keeps us at a remove from each other, and maybe at a remove from seeing what is happening in the world”. Taylor might have added that these “removes” stretch both time and space. In a 2011 piece on “Hauntology”, Andrew Gallix explained:

Smartphones, for instance, encourage us never to fully commit to the here and now, fostering a ghostly presence-absence. Internet time (which is increasingly replacing clock time) results in a kind of “non-time” that goes hand in hand with Marc Augé’s non-places. Perhaps even more crucially, the web has brought about a “crisis of overavailability” that, in effect, signifies the “loss of loss itself”: nothing dies any more, everything “comes back on YouTube or as a box set retrospective” like the looping, repetitive time of trauma (Fisher).

Petzold, I suspect, was conscious that the film would not be able to sustain another layer of displacement.

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