Dir. Christian Petzold; Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese
[4 out of 4 stars]
“Who forgets more quickly: the one who leaves, or the one who has been left behind?” This question, asked by two different characters, is at the heart of Transit (2018), Christian Petzold’s beautiful migration thriller. Transit is adapted from a 1944 novel by the great German-Jewish writer Anna Seghers, which takes place in occupied Marseilles as an unnamed protagonist flees the Nazis and attempts to receive “transits,” temporary visas allowing refugees to pass through port cities. Petzold’s film, told through a voiceover by Matthias Brandt, focuses on a protagonist named Georg (Franz Rogowski), who assumes the identity of a writer named Weidel in an attempt to flee Europe for Mexico. After narrowly escaping arrest in Paris, Georg gets stuck in Marseilles when he falls in love with Weidel’s widow, Marie (Paula Beer), who is seeking her husband, unaware that he has died. Petzold is a master of stories of loss and longing. His last two films, Barbara (2012) and Phoenix (2014), play with the complex emotions surrounding choice, specifically the choice between saving oneself and leaving someone you love, and Transit is every bit as good.
The German occupation of Europe during World War II is probably one of the most written-about periods of history, and it is a mark of Petzold’s brilliance that Transit is able to hold its own and emerge as a fresh tale. Transit, as the adaptation from Seghers would suggest, is ostensibly a film about the Nazi invasion of France, a setting we know from everything from Casablanca (1942) to Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. The Occupation provides the perfect impetus for countless dramas, allowing characters to disappear suddenly, to remerge, to navigate landscapes and identities, to find and to lose romance, to live and to die. American children have likewise grown up with Nazi imagery in films like The Sound of Music (1965) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), films that use the war and its visual settings as a background for other stories. One effect of all this is that viewers are already familiar with the iconography of the war and are already well-acquainted with the visual language of swastikas and red armbands.
In a fascinating and paradoxical twist, Petzold does not quite set his story in the 1940s. Although Georg has escaped from a concentration camp and is fleeing Fascists who are also persecuting two other minor characters, a Jewish woman and a writer with communist leanings, Petzold’s film subverts the usual imagery of the Occupation. This Marseilles – undoubtedly the same one I visited five years ago – is covered in vivid graffiti and is populated by characters dressed in modern clothing who drive their shiny BMWs on the way to modern architecture sites; the police sirens that flash by every few minutes are distinctly French, and the officers are in black riot gear rather than brown uniforms. Some reviewers have suggested that Petzold has merely updated the story for the 21st century, but I think there’s something much more complicated here. Setting the film in the present allows Petzold to tell a story of persecution and occupation with all the emotional import of the war and with all the freshness of a story set in 2018, but he also creates a continuum between the past and the present. The Occupation has, in some ways, monopolized certain types of stories: immigration and refugees, persecution and fear, occupation, etc. Petzold, however, evokes not only the Nazis, but also other instances of dangerous migration, for instance, ICE’s treatment of immigrants in the US, and perhaps most importantly, the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe. One of the central plot developments, for instance, involves the sinking of a ship, which for European audiences likely brings to mind both the 1942 Struma disaster and the refugee boat sunk off the coast of Greece in 2016. Transit invites parallels between these events, forcing viewers to identify themselves with the characters and to question the way we categorize and historicize tragedies.
In general, by placing Transit in this paradoxical setting, Petzold evokes past and present tragedies, inviting viewers to participate in the very uncertainty and shifting – the dissolution of concrete locations and times – that affects Georg, Marie, and all immigrants, then and now. Transit is, in my opinion, a story about both periods, and about the links between them, suggesting that the present is actually built on the past. This is something like what the Israeli-Austrian author Doron Rabinovici said of his own work, that it functions not as “an equation of what happened then and what is happening today” but rather looks at “which parallels force themselves on us, and why.” Petzold’s film examines such parallels, perhaps even suggesting that we cannot ignore the present.
Petzold’s film has many influences beyond Seghers, but no reference is more immediate than Casablanca, the 1942 drama starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman about lovers attempting to escape occupied French Morocco. Casablanca asks the same question about leaving and forgetting, as the Rick-Ilsa-Laszlo love triangle demonstrates. Marie, in Transit, is caught, for instance, in roughly the same position as Ilsa Lund, between her missing husband (the writer Weidel), a temporary affair with a German doctor named Richard (Godehard Giese), and her new love, Georg. Georg never reveals that he knows that Weidel has died and that he now has the writer’s transit visas. The relationship between Georg, Richard, and Marie shifts constantly as one of them receives a “transit” or the hint of one and is on the brink of leaving, and the motivations to stay and to leave are the same as in Casablanca. Petzold, however, is far more ruthless in his telling: just as we begin to feel some hope for one of the relationships, he tears away its viability and we are left heartbroken.
One of the film’s greatest triumphs is in a repeated early sequence, reminiscent of both Ilsa Lund’s arrival in Casablanca and the second half of Vertigo (1958). In these sequences, Georg, wandering around Marseilles, is approached from behind by a woman. She taps him on the shoulder, excitedly, and when he turns to see her, her face falls, and she runs away in fear. We later learn that this is Marie, searching for her husband. The first time this happens, it seems like an innocent mistake, but by the third or fourth time, the viewer is aware of the real pain and confusion Marie feels, especially when we realize that both Georg and we know more about her husband than she does. For some reason, Marie is drawn to Georg – perhaps they look something alike – and like Ilsa, she’s convincing in her love for multiple men. But if Hitchcock taught us anything, it’s that this kind of attraction is dangerous – like Jimmy Stewart’s character in Vertigo, Marie seems to have difficulty keeping imagined and real relationships apart.
Where Transit diverges from Casablanca is when it dips into the Kafkaesque. Georg’s repeated visits to the consul evoke The Trial, and Georg even discovers a story (written by Weidel) that shares much with Kafka’s parable “Before the Law.” But more than this, Petzold’s story shares that same profound loss of hope in the face of insurmountable bureaucracy. He does this by briefly introducing minor characters whose stories end, suddenly: a Jewish woman, a conductor, a young refugee boy and his Deaf mother. At one point, the narrator – whom we finally meet in the end – says that in port towns, everyone has the right to tell stories. We get some of Georg’s and some of Marie’s, but even these end before any lasting hope arrives. Petzold’s film is transitory, fleeting, leaving you wanting more.
I don’t think we ever find out the answer to the question about forgetting that Georg is asked both by Marie and by the American consul. As in Casablanca, the answer seems to be that nobody really forgets; each character is indelibly touched by the war, albeit in different ways. Petzold’s film is equal parts thriller and drama, and it packs all the emotional punch of both genres.