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Living in an oppressive system

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Haunted people inhabit transitory spaces in the work of German auteur Christian Petzold. 

“Who is the first to forget: he who is left, or she who left him?” Georg (Franz Rogowski), a German refugee making his way through wartime France, is asked this question twice in the haunting Transit (2018). The question also resonates through the other two films that comprise Christian Petzold’s informal trilogy, ‘Love in Times of Oppressive Systems,’ of which Transit is the final instalment. While the question is asked of Georg in relation to a romantic relationship – whether one lover has now become a ghost to another – it relates also to Petzold’s wider concerns, about history and cultural memory.

In Barbara (2012) and Phoenix (2014), Barbara and Nelly (both played by the extraordinary Nina Hoss), are also dislocated from home and pushed around by the forces of history. Barbara, a doctor, lives in a Germany divided by a very real wall. It’s 1980, and after applying for an exit visa to the west she has been relocated from a prestigious East Berlin hospital to a clinic in the provinces where her every move is monitored and her personal liberty is regularly violated by the Stasi. She’s living a life not of her choosing, within a system that breeds mistrust and corrupts relationships.

In Phoenix, Nelly returns to Berlin from Auschwitz in June 1945, her face disfigured by a gunshot and heavily bandaged. After surgery she is determined to find her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) – she hasn’t forgotten him, but whether he remembers her is the mystery this noirish mood piece sets out to solve. Like Georg, both Barbara and Nelly are ghosts moving through a complex world. They wait to take form – in limbo, unable to forget the past but powerless to move forward. For these characters, history stands still.

The films of the Berlin School focus almost exclusively on life in contemporary Germany, refusing to look back to the turbulent past. But Petzold offers a challenge with his ‘Love in Times of Oppressive Systems’ trilogy. In these films, the past is always present. The trilogy is a warning against forgetting the past, that nevertheless acknowledges just how testing and tough it is to live in its shadow.

From its opening scene, Transit loops history in on itself. Time and space collapse as Petzold renders the present inseparable from the past. Based on Anna Segher’s 1944 novel of the same name, Transit takes her story of a German concentration camp escapee seeking passage to the United States via Vichy France and gives it contemporary resonance. We meet Georg sitting in a Paris bar. The setting is clearly the city now, but there is talk of ‘the occupation,’ of camps, deportations, and ‘cleansings’ that recall World War 2 and the Holocaust. Sirens blare, and the streets are frequently filled with storming police. We implicitly understand that these men are Nazis even though they don’t wear identifying markers.

When Georg arrives in Marseille, the visibility of North African characters broadens the allusions between Germany history and Europe’s current refugee crisis and resurgent fascism. Here, the past and the present coexist, provoking both ambiguity around the historical specificity of the events unfolding as well as circularity. The modern setting deliberately disorients us but it also permits a timelessness and universality to the refugee experience. History, as Petzold imagines it in Transit, is doomed to repeat; its horrors, an endless trauma.

The ghosts of Germany’s past live  within these transitional spaces. They are present not only in how Petzold’s trilogy engages with German history, but in the existential crises faced by his protagonists as they wait in these transitory spaces. Transit’s voiceover narration – spoken by the owner of the bar that Georg frequents in Marseille – tells us that Georg is invisible. “The terrible thing is they don’t see you. You don’t exist in their world.” Georg’s attempt to secure a hotel room underlines this problem of non-existence. The landlady says the police will leave him alone if he can show that he has secured a visa and passage on a ship. As Georg rightly observes, “I can only stay here if I can prove that I don’t want to stay.”

 

Stasi surveillance mechanisms turn Barbara into a ghost; a body that exists only as others say it can. Framing her in slow long shots, Petzold implicates the audience in this shadowing. We can’t see her very clearly from this distance, and yet it’s from this distance that her behaviour will be judged. It feels as if Barbara is being watched even when we can’t see anyone watching her. There is no safe space for her. Every glance in her direction is potentially sinister, and makes her identity more fragile.

Petzold turns Barbara into a thriller by building tension around trust. This plays out most significantly in her relationship with the head doctor at her new clinic. André Reiser’s (Ronald Zehrfeld) sympathetic nature is compromised by his relationship with the Stasi officer who has asked him to prepare regular reports about Barbara. “You shouldn’t keep yourself so separate,” he suggests to her, but it’s the system itself that forces her to hold herself apart. Even when she begins to trust André she still asks, “Will this go in your report?”  

History has made a mess of Nelly’s identity and she is desperate to be remembered and seen. When she finds Johnny working at a cabaret in the American quarter of the city he admits that she has a slight resemblance to his wife, but states, emphatically, that Nelly is dead. Johnny’s myopia suits his version of history, one in which his wife died and where he isn’t accountable. But as Nelly begins to take form again, performing an impersonation of who she was before Auschwitz – for Johnny, for Germany – she’s unrecognisable to herself.

In Phoenix, individual amnesia – Johnny’s – is akin to collective guilt and denial – Germany’s. While Berlin rebuilds, no one talks about the horrors of the camps, even as survivors stumble through the broken streets. Johnny tells Nelly their friends want to see “the Nelly of the past … not a ragged camp-internee.” To believe that Nelly has survived would both implicate Johnny in her horror and acknowledge existence of the horror itself. Johnny hasn’t forgotten, he simply refuses to remember.

Survival requires moving forward no matter how difficult. There is no going back, and standing still risks complete erasure. By Barbara’s conclusion there is a hard-won acquiescence expressed through the glance Barbara exchanges with André as they sit beside a patient’s bed. Freedom is found in acceptance. Nelly, finally accepting the truth about Johnny, lets her mask drop – she shows him who she really is and walks away from him and into her future. But Petzold gives Transit a darker, more ambiguous conclusion. Georg, refusing to accept reality, ends the film exactly where he starts it – waiting at a bar, pitched somewhere between desperation and hope. 

- Joanna Di Mattia