‘But we are still alive’: On refugee depictions in ‘Transit’ and ‘Exit West’

Schramm Film/Courtesy

The consul banged the table and said,

“If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”

But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive

 

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;

Asked me politely to return next year:

But where shall we go today, my dear, but where shall we go today? 

 

—W. H. Auden, “Refugee Blues”

 

 

The stories we hear, tell or circulate about refugees influence everything from public sentiment to refugee studies and policies. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben writes that refugees, unidentified asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants represent “a disquieting element” in the nation-state system, “because by breaking up the identity between man and citizen, between nativity and nationality, (they) throw into crisis the original fiction of sovereignty.”

Hostile narratives frame refugees as threats to the nation-state’s social, political and economic body. The more sympathetic representations of refugees often deployed by humanitarian aid or human rights groups portray them as traumatized victims in the midst of danger, devoid of agency. Their suffering is what stirs our fleeting and capricious compassion. Circulating pictures of refugees taking selfies, instead of the actual selfies of the refugees, after having successfully survived perilous journeys across seas, leaves the average spectator in bewilderment, if not disgust — perhaps the same kind of disgust found in the disparaging gaze of one who gawks at a homeless person holding a smartphone. They aren’t suffering enough.

Quite possibly, the media’s tendency toward using exploitative images of suffering, or the photographed person as a spectacle, reproduces these expectations and associations more privileged citizen-spectators have. Furthermore, such depictions are often framed for shock value, obscuring the political reasons behind their displacement. All seem to configure an “essential refugee” that must look, sound, suffer and behave in specific ways to “deserve” attention, care, rights, and to even be classified as a refugee. 

Must refugees always be suffering to garner our sympathies? Must they be grateful for rights that should have been protected in the first place? Must they undergo a level of scrutiny or be held to expectations that, at times, not even citizens are subject to? After all, what separates the refugee from the citizen is an accident of birth, inheritance or well-timed migration.

Christian Petzold’s film “Transit” (2018) and Mohsin Hamid’s novel “Exit West” (2017) are two refugee narratives that complicate and challenge commonly held assumptions about refugees. The refugee experience isn’t singular, reducible or even universal. With this in mind, these two narratives depict what time and place might mean for refugees, rendering both unfamiliar for those who have a comfortable sense of rhythm and rootedness. 

After all, what separates the refugee from the citizen is an accident of birth, inheritance or well-timed migration.

“But sir, this here is hell.”

In “Transit” (2018), German director Christian Petzold adapts Anna Seghers’s 1944 novel of the same name into a film that collapses time. Set in what looks like present-day France, but in a political climate reminiscent of World War II, fascists are closing in and root out refugees — many of them Jews. That the unspecified fascists sport police riot gear rather than swastikas might be a pointed question for our own time: Was fascism eradicated for good in 1945? Not at all, the film answers.

Our protagonist, Georg (Franz Rogowski), is a German refugee tasked with delivering two letters to a leftist writer, Weidel, only to discover that the writer has committed suicide in a hotel bathroom, leaving a bloody bathtub and a distraught French hotelier. Georg takes Weidel’s passport, travel papers and the manuscript of his unpublished novel, assuming Weidel’s identity and falling for his estranged wife, Marie (Paula Beer).

Georg’s second task is to help another injured friend, Heinz (Ronald Kukulies), home to his family on a train to Marseilles. While stowing away on said train, Georg reads Weidel’s manuscript. Heinz doesn’t make it, and Georg must again run from fascists. Tired, he reaches Marseilles and notes how terrible it is that no one looks at him: “They don’t see you. You don’t exist in their world.” 

Relegated to ghosthood, only other refugees seem to notice all of them waiting in line and in limbo at the Mexican consulate. They start to tell him their stories, and a voice narrates: “The people here have every right to tell stories. And be listened to.” Here is where Georg is mistaken for Weidel by the consul and accepts the late writer’s identity. The decision seems clear; only with proper documentation is Georg acknowledged. Without documentation, he might as well be dead — will die. The consul informs Georg that his wife has been waiting to leave with him; Marie’s fate is tied to the husband she left. In order to not be deported, Georg needs transit papers proving he won’t stay in France. The film’s title gestures to the Kafkaesque absurdity, while also encompassing the purgatorial precarity of being in a transitory state.

In the meantime, Georg visits Heinz’s North African wife, Melissa (Maryam Zaree), and his young son, Driss (Lilien Batman), to deliver the bad news. There, he becomes a father figure to Driss. Scenes of the two playing soccer and of Georg singing a lullaby to Driss after he fixes the boy’s radio cement the tenderness between them. But the life of the refugee is such that alliances and loves are tentative and uncertain. Georg’s newfound attachments complicate his desires. Fleeing for his life means leaving someone behind. To stay or to leave? And with whom?

Sparse, though potent, are scenes of police raids and death: refugees lined up to be deported; a woman dragged away from her family, screaming, in the hotel Georg stays at while those spared look on in shame; and a man who dies while waiting in line at the consulate. These scenes only highlight and bring to the forefront the prolonged precarity that saps hope, the painful severing of bonds just made, and the bureaucratic nightmare of waiting that are common parts of the refugee experience.

As the film culminates in its relentless end, one is reminded of a scene at the consulate where the consul asks Georg — as Weidel — about the last thing he wrote. Georg recites:

A man had died. He was to register in hell. He waited in front of a large door. He waited a day, two. He waited weeks. Months. Then years. Finally a man walked past him. The man waiting addressed him: “Perhaps you can help me. I’m supposed to register in hell.” The other man looks him up and down and says, “But sir, this here is hell.”

In “Transit,” characters wait in line, in rooms and at a restaurant. They meander in Marseilles, riding cars and boats yet never getting to their intended destinations. Thus, the film asks us to center the refugee and inhabit their experience of time and place. Refugees — based on the misfortune of not having been born in a certain place at a certain time, the misfortune of migrating at the wrong moment, of being too much or not enough, losing everything to natural or man-made disasters out of one’s control, or from fleeing the violence of those baited by the flimsy fiction of a “master race” — are told to stand by, to bide and kill their time while waiting for a deliverance that may never come. 

As such, we are left suspended in the hell of Georg’s wait.

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Migrants through time

“Location, location, location, the realtors say. Geography is destiny, respond the historians.”

— Mohsin Hamid, “Exit West”

Mohsin Hamid’s novel “Exit West” opens with two lovers, Saeed and Nadia, in an unnamed city “swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war.” Hamid’s choice to leave the city unnamed echoes Petzold’s choice to fold different time periods in on each other — speaking to the past, our present and an uneasy future. The novel spans across geographies and destinies, as some short vignettes of both nationals and refugees alike are interwoven with Saeed and Nadia’s story.

Contrary to narratives or images that linger excessively on scenes of violence, suffering and the dangerous journey across seas or land, Hamid exercises authorial mercy and introduces the storytelling device of magical doors. Just as Saeed and Nadia’s city is overtaken by militants, and they lose loved ones and stability, doors that open to other countries appear at random throughout their world. As an author, Hamid is less concerned with the depiction of migrant caravans and refugees lost at sea, and more with exploring how refugees might recreate their lives in a new territory and continue living from a point of interruption.

Thus, this story is not solely about loss, but also about the task of reinvention after one’s former life and context have been decimated or destabilized. “Exit West” explores the shifts in desire that occur in Saeed and Nadia, as well as what it means to be human. From refugee camps in Mykonos to a settlement in an empty London mansion, devoutly gentle Saeed and boldly independent Nadia hold onto each other in the midst of danger, hunger and the drawn-out boredom of waiting. Their story is not without joy, especially the kind of joy that permits Saeed to declare, “The end of the world can be cozy at times,” as they huddle together in the dark while the power, gas and water are cut and their city falls.

Such everyday necessities become unfamiliar by the narrator’s declarative and remote voice. Even phones seem almost alien when described as such: 

In their phones were antennas, and these antennas sniffed out an invisible world, as if by magic, a world that was all around them, and also nowhere, transporting them to places distant and near, and to places that had never been and would never be.

The virtual world is a place where a person can neither be a refugee or a native. It is a space in which displacement is impossible. Travel, as long as one is connected, can be instant. It is a space of possibility such as the space within a book. The phone is a portal to these invisible worlds and ways to connect with others across time and space, just like the magical doors in “Exit West” are portals to new destinies that await the users. By calling our attention to the phones and the use of the magical doors, Hamid asks us to consider the ways in which borders are already undermined and transgressed.

The three cities Saeed and Nadia move to represent differing experiences of life as refugees. In Greece, they experience what Agamben calls “bare life,” owning no rights as citizens, no political agency, and subsisting on humanitarian aid. In London, the couple joins a refugee settlement in empty mansions, and finds comfort in differing communities despite the threat of nativist violence. Lastly, in Marin County, they witness a regional assembly for the Bay Area being conceived in hopes of a truly representative political system — a vote for every person regardless of nationality, status or past. 

In “Exit West,” the doors speed up the reordering of the world. Despite the efforts of the global north to keep refugees at bay, the fictions of national purity or essence are undone as the compositions of cities and nations shift. Hamid imagines a kind of citizenship and humanity that isn’t dependent on the nation-state, thus questioning what Liisa Malkki termed the “national order of things” and the “sedentarist bias” that puts forth the nation-state as normal, natural and unquestionable as well as marks the refugee, migrant or immigrant as a threatening anomaly — not the result of a global history of wealth inequality and violence.

Each time Nadia and Saeed migrate, they discover themselves anew. Their story does not stay stuck in the past, tied to the city that birthed them. Neither are their lives over or lost once they are displaced — merely transformed. Distinctions between the national and the refugee blur. One statement in the book gleams with all the force of a moving star: “We are all migrants through time.” No one, no relation, no culture, no city and no nation escapes transformation.

Put in conversation, “Transit” and “Exit West” shed light on overlooked aspects of refugee experiences: the soul-crushing stretch of time spent waiting to be granted asylum or passage; the shame and guilt felt by refugees who must choose survival though it sometimes means abandonment; the moments of joy, connection and community found in the thick and threat of destruction; and the bursts of political agency possible even as rights are suppressed or unrecognized. Inseparable from the questions and assumptions surrounding refugees are those about borders, states and citizenship. These two narratives prod an interrogation of these concepts, urging us to identify absurdities and alternatives.

Contact Kris Shin at [email protected].