Notes From the Margins…

Christian Petzold’s Transit: Fascism in the Present

  • August 23, 2019
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Last night I went to see Christian Petzold’s Transit.  It’s a beguiling, enigmatic and haunting film, which cleverly inserts the history of the German occupation of France into present-day France, in a tale of one man’s attempt to flee safety through Marseilles by adopting a false identity as a writer.  Based on the 1942 novel Transit by the German writer Anna Seghers,  the film never refers to Nazism directly.

There is no Gestapo, no occupying troops or Nazi iconography.  The police the characters are fleeing from are contemporary French police who might be carrying out counterterrorist or immigration raids.  Apart from the technology – old radio sets – and a few elliptical references to fascism,  Vichy roundups, the German-Jewish writer Walter Benjamin and the WW2 escape routes across the Pyrenees, the film situates Seghers’ novel in a French setting that might be 2019 or some dystopian nightmare further down the road.

Though some of the stateless people in the film are Jews, others are North Africans who might be refugees or simply undocumented sans papiers.   All of them are part of a world in which everyday life is permeated by an omnipresent all-pervasive terror, in which fascistic police can burst into their homes, their workplaces, or snatch them from the streets at any moment.

This is the world that Walter Benjamin was once part of; a world of consulate and embassy queues, where desperate men and women seek a signature or a transit visa to get out of France that can make the difference between life and death, but Petzold resolutely situates this history in what might be the present or the near future.

It’s this deliberate mingling of past and present that makes Transit interesting – and strikingly pertinent to our current predicament.

It depicts fascism not as something freakish or abnormal, but as a quotidian reality of terror, flight, and precarity that can repeat itself in any era and any country, when men, women and children designated as aliens or unwanted outsiders are stripped of their rights and left at the mercy of a predatory state.

In the film the American consulate in Marseilles is the gateway to safety in Mexico and the US, just as it was for the thousands of Jews and anti-Nazi emigré artists and activists who found safety with the help of the journalist Varian Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee in 1940.

Few people will need reminding that this is not the role that America is currently playing.  Just two days ago, the Trump administration announced plans to indefinitely detain migrant children arrested at the border.  In the same week the US government refused to give flu vaccine to migrant children detained at the border, even though at least three children have died of flu while in custody.

A fortnight ago, on the same day that Trump visited El Paso to pose with a baby whose parents had been murdered by a white supremacist with very similar views to his own, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested 680 migrants during ‘deportation raids’  in seven Mississippi agricultural processing plants.

A video showed the 11-year-old daughter of one of the detainees, Magdalena Gomez-Jorge, crying and begging for her father to be released.  Similar images have reached the public before, but there is no indication that they have had any impact on an administration that is coolly and gleefully implementing a regime of terror and cruelty both at its southern border and inside its territory.

Commenting on the Mississippi raids, Jess Morales Rocketto, the chair of the pro-immigrant group Families Belong Together, argued that the arrests were part of an ongoing pattern in which

“Dismantling our asylum laws, caging children, and separating families — all while El Paso mourns — is Trump’s comprehensive white nationalist agenda in action. The raids are part of a broader strategy that is sadistic, cruel, and intentional, all in an effort to terrorise communities of colour while scoring racist political points with his base.”

This is exactly what is taking place.   Everyday hundreds of thousands of migrants in the United States go about their daily business in the knowledge that – like the characters in Petzold’s film – they could be snatched from their homes or workplaces.

Trump did not start this process, nor are such actions unique to the United States.  Contrary to what many of Trump’s critics often assume, his more liberal predecessors also oversaw a similar regime of raids and deportations.   The European Union and Australia have established brutal and inhumane ‘border regimes’ both inside and outside their territories.

But there is no doubt that Trump has taken the persecution of migrants to new lengths.   And what is striking – and appalling – about the regime of terror that he has unleashed against migrants is its naked cruelty and sadism, and its absence of accompanying shame or regret.  Unlike his predecessors, Trump and his officials have not apologised for the egregious horrors unleashed by the administration’s ‘no tolerance’ immigration policy, let alone tried to redress them.

The result is that we now have a liberal-democratic government that separates migrant children from their families, without even ensuring that they are reunited with their parents; whose officials actually appear before judicial committees to explain that migrant toddlers do not need towels or toothbrushes; whose Border Patrol agents have told migrant children to drink toilet water.



It’s a government that makes even young children lie down each night in cages on concrete floors, that has not taken steps to prevent thousands of migrant children from being sexually abused by immigration staff.

All this is happening in plain sight.  In effect, Trumpism has effectively lowered the threshold of what is morally acceptable, and if he is allowed to continue in the trajectory, we can expect the threshold to be lowered still further.

That is why Petzold’s subtle reimagining of fascist terror in 21st century France is so powerful.   It’s not a perfect film, but it is an important one.  In fusing the history of the Nazi occupation with an undefined fascistic present it reminds us that the history it invokes is not a freakish aberration, but a process that can be repeated in many different contexts.

The film plays out with credits rolling over Talking Heads ‘The Road to Nowhere’, and as I came away from the cinema I thought of the world of Trump, Windrush, Salvini and Orban, and I saw the film as a dystopian warning about the worst possible future, and also as a fairly accurate depiction of the dystopian reality that many of the 21st century’s stateless or unwanted people already inhabit.




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  1. Al

    27th Aug 2019 - 9:27 pm

    Part 1 of a program you may want to listen to if you have30 mi utes.

  2. Mark

    7th Feb 2021 - 10:17 am

    Dont always agree with you Matt, but you do learn reading your blog. I had never heard about Walter Benjamin until I read your blog. Interestingly he was mentioned again this morning on BBC radio 4 A point of View. I font know if you listen to it but you may want to.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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