Cast: Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Lilien Batman, Maryam Zaree, Barbara Auer, Matthias Brandt, Sebastian Hülk, Emilie de Preissac, Antoine Oppenheim, Ronald Kukulies, Alex Brendemühl
Director: Christian Petzold
Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
In films like Barbara and Phoenix, German writer-director Christian Petzold mined past atrocities for subversive effect, and his latest film Transit, plays like a political noir wrapped in an anachronistic setting where past and present collide. An adaptation of Anna Seghers’s 1944 novel of same name which focused on the authors’ escape from Nazi Germany to France, Petzold’s version uses time elliptically; almost as if events are taking place in an alternate-historical reality.
The narrative centers on a technician named Georg (Franz Rogowski), who carries the final manuscripts from a famous author who committed suicide into the safe zone of Marseilles. Georg hopes to flee to America but doesn’t have papers, and much of the film’s knotty plotting comes down to the implication of his hinted Jewishness. Within the world of the film, references are made to internment camps, but ethnicity is largely sidelined in favor of economic disparity. Of course, it’s not a stretch to link the two, and part of the brilliance of Transit is how it utilizes the modern-day milieu and then strips it of contemporary signifiers such as cellphones and computers.
Georg’s initial aim was to return the dead author’s manuscripts to his wife for a sum of money, but things take a turn once he becomes land-locked in Marseilles awaiting the approval of his transit visa. Through fluid editing and compositions shot through reflective surfaces, Petzold conjures a feeling of being stuck in a loop, as Georg continually gets trapped under layers of government bureaucracy. In the meantime, he strikes up a fatherly relationship with a young immigrant boy named Driss (Lilien Batman), and keeps having odd encounters with the hauntingly beautiful Marie (Paula Beers). Eventually, it’s revealed that she’s actually the deceased author’s wife, who keeps hoping her displaced husband will return. Georg and Marie’s meetings are baffling at first, but eventually their courtship becomes heartbreaking since both of them have been dehumanized. What Petzold is ultimately after is the idea of personal worth, of the ways in which the state strips away the identity of those deemed “less than human.” Like his Holocaust drama Phoenix, he does this not by using obvious allegory, but by suggesting that past transgressions are often filtered through historical generational trauma.
The indefinite time period where Transit unfolds makes the film intoxicating, as Petzold never betrays the noir signifiers by thumbing his nose at genre. At the same time, the picture’s ambiguity create a disorienting effect; as it’s never quite clear where the danger is coming from or even what the larger implications of the story are. By assuming the identity of the dead author, Georg essentially becomes a stand-in for all nameless refugees seeking escape. Meanwhile, an unseen narrator infiltrates the narrative as Georg begins reading the deceased’s novel; further highlighting the ways in which storytelling (unreliable or otherwise) is crucial to shaping our notions of history.
Transit could be labeled Kafkaesque in how it destabilizes the protagonist (who remains caught in a pile of red tape), but this also works similarly for the audience because it masterfully exploits our understanding of 21st century displacement. With the rise of Neo-Nazism and the deportation of immigrants on the rise, another period film about the Holocaust (however noble), might not carry the same weight since historical amnesia tends to set in. By giving us a speculative timeline and characters who are constantly shifting, Petzold cannily shows us that no matter what decade we find ourselves in, fascism is always poised to take center stage.