Gate to the South: Back to Marseille | City Symphonies
„Walking down from the hills, I came to the outer precincts of Marseille. At a bend in the road, I saw the sea far below me. A bit later I saw the city itself spread out against the water. It seemed as bare and white as an African city. At last, I felt calm.” When Paul, the subjective narrator of Transit, published by Anna Seghers in 1944, discovers the panorama of Marseille coming in from Nazi-occupied Paris, the Corsican Quarter is still alive, and the hotel in Rue de la Provence, where the author herself had lived for a couple of months, was still functioning, hosting mysterious patrons. Years later, in 1977, a duo of West-German filmmakers, Ingemo Engström și Gerhard Theuring, went on the hunt for the emblematic places that turned Transit into the most important novel set in Marseille. They find the street and the disaffected hotel, then the increasingly pale traces of the old Corsican neighborhood, razed by the Nazi forces during the Second World War. Thanks to Anne Seghers we could find out – almost in “real-time” – what a determinant, frontline role Marseille had to play in the defeat of the Axis forces.
Fluchtweg nach Marseille, the film in case, is a cinematic proto-essay of phantomatic places and memory gaps: an unassumingly sleepy present is suddenly reanimated, like in the movies of Straub-Huillet, by trauma and the battles of the past, retained by archival images. Rüdiger Selig, Wenders’ famous actor, reads passages from the book while sipping from a cup at the Mont-Ventoux cafe while gazing towards the Vieux Port, the small gulf where the Phoceans accosted so very long ago, and that today serves as the town’s touristic center. Instead of the consulates where the characters of the novel spend their afternoons in despair and anguish, instead of clandestine chambers and dimly-lit hotel hallways, the film discovers the indifference of a town that has decidedly anchored in modernity: it travels across its wide highway at sundown – a flux of dozens upon dozens of cars that calmly move forward, under the protection of anonymity – and gazes meditatively downwards, at the esplanade of the train station, towards the Canebière, the famous boulevard that goes down towards the sea. This is where militant communists and pyromaniac Nazis once passed, and nowadays, the place is abundant in immigrants living precariously. Marseille lives on in its status as the gate to the south – a global South, both geographically and economically, promised (or closed) by a cold blue sea, nowadays populated by obscenely luxurious liners, and yesterday by “the ferry slowly passing under the railway bridge” (Seghers).
On a ship – the Montreal, torpedoed in the waters of Dakar –, this is where a masterpiece such as Transit opens, a stupefying account of the purgatory of a refugee, forced to live in incertitude and confusion, an easy pray for a draining ritual that is reprised day by day. Seghers, who lived in the city before boarding a ship going towards Mexico City, knows the fascination of the streets turned asylum all too well: a fatal and seductive game is beginning to take shape in the pages of the novel, with familiar faces who pretend not to see, with run-of-the-mill opportunists lost in cafes, even with a ghost, a woman in a vaporous dress, who appears and disappears constantly while on the search of her husband, unaware that he’s been assassinated by the Nazis. A writing from the shadows, Transit strains the chord of patience, unraveling convoluted plots against the unbearably staid backdrop of the visa of departure that is slow to arrive. With its water spreading at its feet, which now claims even more victims coming in from other horizons, with its hills on which narrow streets have been laid out at a blind angle, it’s no wonder Marseille could serve, without cosmeticization, as the setting for the same story in Christian Petzold’s remarkable Transit (2018), which mixes eras with ease, using CRS gendarmes as Nazis and merchant ships replacing of the Transatlantic liners of yesteryear. A film that is just as angst-ridden, but seemingly even more dystopic, is Terminal Sud (2019) by Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche (one of the most talented filmmakers working in France today), shot in nearby Nîmes, depicting the situation of a hypothetical civil war under the blazing Occitanian sun. In a final scene, we approach the coast, a little above Marseille, towards the Gulf of Martigues: we see a sea that is flanked by oil factories, with a host of cargo ships resting on its demonic sheen, like oil in flames. If there is salvation beyond, then it is not a pretty sight.
It’s stunning to see how, starting from Seghers’ time, Marseille seems to have remained, at least in cinematic terms, an essentially German affair. Because no text dedicated to the film that turned this city into their playground cannot forego Angela Schanelec’s 2004 film, not at all coincidentally-titled Marseille. In a scene treated, according to the author’s custom, as obliquely as possible, the protagonist loans the car of a local to take a ride on the hills that guard the town – as if she were searching for the very heights from which, years earlier, the character in Transit faced its panorama for the first time. Marseille isn’t some lengthy and cheesy homage – it’s the gaze of an outside that is aware of the potential advantage of its position, a transnational gift that turns the city into a sort of Mediterranean Berlin, dark and full of gusto in its blue nights, and for its subtly melancholic empty plots of land. The title has reasons to trick, but it isn’t posing as totalitarian, but rather, it’s a hook for meaning, thrown into an abstract audiovisual night. We’re light-years away from the usual torrid representations, where Marseille turned into a passe-partout for a nation that has fallen prey to delinquency (Shéhérazade, a beautiful chronicle of a tumultuous youth) or organized crime (Enquête sur un scandale d’Etat, opening with a vertical panorama spanning from the soles of the town to the cathedral of the hill, Notre-Dame de la Garde).
Shanelec shoots on dreary, storyless streets that penetrate – hinting upon iron fences – into a silent periphery; she often shoots in modern, impersonal spaces where the Molotov cocktail of contemporary architecture reigns: big glass windows and escalators. Marseille is a film of foreignness and commonplace, unceremonious estrangement. The city is delivered to us timidly, glimpsed at here and there (the protagonist lives in a working-class building near the coast, overlooking the small port of Vallon des Auffes and the aqueduct that is crossed by the highway); a topos which is confirmed only in the last shot, with one of the place’s iconic beaches, where the sand seems to blend organically with the concrete of the surrounding buildings and the unmitigated noise of traffic. In an earlier scene, the same view from the station esplanade towards the Canebière, familiar to anyone who arrives in Marseille, winks towards us, only for us to learn, within the frame of a statement filed at the police station, that the protagonist was attacked right there by an exhibitionist.
This discussion of Marseille as a place of cinema would be incomplete without Robert Guédiguian, the director that turned L’Estaque, the proletarian village in the north of the city into a small refuge of class warfare and socio-political utopias. His politically engaged work has been made to serve the disenfranchised. brings to mind the works of more famous Ken Loach and Dardenne Brothers – but I would say that his etchings are finer and more ingenious than the ones made by his brethren. Working with a stable group, which includes his partner, Ariane Ascaride, and Gérard Meylan or Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Guédiguian has become the informal chronicler of the urban transformations that have affected Marseille in the past few decades, starting with the gradual decommissioning of shipyards (in the superb Marius et Jeannette, from 1997) and finishing with the new influx of migrants arriving to the South of France from Africa (La Villa, 2017). Guédiguian’s town is one of winding downhill streets, old, turn-of-the-century “on the ground” houses, small households, and socialist apartment blocks that were built in the sixties. The bar – a traditional bar, with a counter, ricard, and daily live concerts – is a meeting place for these people who tell their sorrows over drinks, staying behind to tell one last story after the clients leave. Sundays are the days when the neighbors are cooking together, making juicy comments about rich people, and enjoying the beautiful afternoon sunlight. In Les Neiges de Kilimandjaro (2011), Guédiguian deftly links the fate of these „de souche” Frenchmen, who lost their jobs to the post-industrial neoliberal landscape, to the precarious population of immigrants of color, forced to steal from each other in an act of absurd cannibalism. It’s a luminous, melodramatic, and warm film, which discovers a feeling of solidarity – of a common fight – in the passage from a white proletarian periphery to a black lumpen-proletarian ghetto, retaining the center as a fake-sounding holiday destination. Guédiguian is more than a local filmmaker – but his faithfulness to a town that always knew how to remain convivial and accessible, graciously surfing over the hostile waves of time, only makes the defiant political aims of his lifelong project only stronger.