Anna Seghers’s 1942 novel Transit is considered one of the great hidden gems of wartime literature, a thrilling but agonizing study of a German concentration camp survivor’s attempt to flee Nazi occupied France as the horrors of fascism close in around him. Her story of the crisis of the refugees, unable to leave but forbidden to stay, resonated acutely with contemporary struggles, and it’s depressingly easy to see why any director would want to adapt it in our current time. For German director Christian Petzold, the immediacy of the material called for a modern-day update. So his version of Transit has been moved to the present day, with the port of Marseille a suntrap of purgatory and the Nazis now the same mundanely dressed border agents seen every night on the news.
It’s a risky gambit for any filmmaker, and one that may leave some viewers cold. The parallels aren’t immediately obvious and much is left to subtext, but Transit remains one of the most striking films of the past decade or so that captures the ceaseless agony of a life in hiding while the world watches in apathy.
Georg, a radio and TV repairman, has been forced to flee Paris to escape Nazi imprisonment, only to find the city under siege as the occupation has settled in full force. His only option is to head to Marseille, one of the only ports left where people can flee to safer pastures, but that journey still requires the appropriate paperwork. Georg soon finds himself in possession of a dead man’s Visa, but the agony has only just begun.
As the occupation becomes fully inescapable, Georg finds glimpses of hope and solace with fellow refugees who live in the margins of the postcard-friendly port town. There’s the maid of two Americans who have already flown the coop and left their staff with the dogs; the deaf-mute mother of a young asthmatic boy with whom Georg forms a familial bond; the harried doctor who struggles with whether to flee alone or stay with his lover; and said lover (Paula Beer), the wife of the man whose identity Georg has unwittingly stolen. They share hushed conversations in French and German, offer tidbits of their stories, and spend hours in bureaucratic hell seeking those golden tickets out of port.
One thing Transit captures with agonizing precision is how quickly the endless fear for one’s life becomes almost mundane. For Georg, he spends most of his days in Marseille waiting, walking, talking, almost like the many tourists in the area but always on the verge of bolting once the ever-present police vans come round the corner. Against the backdrop of the sun-scorched Marseille, full of cute Italian restaurants and ice-cream parlours, Georg can blend in to some degree but he, like so many others, will never fit in, not in this new age. Petzold smartly keeps the story free of modern political references as well as those of the original novel. The term ‘fascists’ is used, but never Nazis, and nobody talks about Making Europe Great Again. The struggle of Georg and his fellow refugees speaks for itself in terms of our current climate and mistakes of the past. This Marseille, deliberately, could be anywhere.
Grounding this deliberately oblique tale is the staggering performance of Franz Rogowski, a man blessed with the most striking face that seems tailor-made for micro-emotions and cinematic pain. He plays Georg as a defeated man who has known only loss but keeps fighting, even if he’s not sure why he does so. The bureaucratic circles and threats of raids are so frequent that he has been left hollow by it all. Expect him to become a megastar in Europe then be used in Hollywood movies mostly as a stock bad guy against one of the heroic Chrises. Paula Beer, who plays Marie, the wife of the later writer, gets to be more expressive, more evidently in pain from her experience in humanity’s limbo.
For a film that is so existential, the terror of fascism is a palpably real presence throughout Transit. There are no posters announcing its arrival throughout France, nor are there men in flashy uniforms rounding up the masses. Instead, there is normal life and the bursts of state violence that have become part of the daily routine. The story veers towards allegorical at times, at the expense of Georg and his fellow refugees, but circles back to their exhausting experiences. They’re in hell and escape is either pointless or impossible, possibly both. This juggling act of a movie, both strict in its form and morbidly surreal in its ethereal connection to reality, has no interest in holding its audiences hand or guiding them through this descent. That may prove unsatisfying to some, especially when the few glimmers of personal insight into these characters comes from a narrator who likes to talk over his subjects. The parallels are obvious but the lack of in-film context may disappoint some. Don’t come to this film expecting any character to explain what’s going on. None of them have any time for that.
Marie and Georg’s relationship proves to be one of the more frustrating elements of the film. It is in this dynamic where the characters feel more like ciphers than people, with Georg’s growing love for Marie symbolizing how futile their predicaments have become. Rather than their relationship seeming like a moment of hope in a sea of madness, the decisions both of them make feel contrived, especially in the context of this hell. Many critics have made the ‘anti-Casablanca’ references in regards to this relationship and they’re not wrong, but for a film so acutely aware of how war and its power robs people of their dignity, the deliberate and bleakly funny subversion of Bogie and Ingrid’s connection falls flat.
For some, the set-up to Transit may be a gimmick too far, but the film’s cycle of pain and inescapable struggle remains one of the most jolting depictions of identity and having it ripped from you by almighty forces. Petzold’s film is a refined piece of work that doesn’t want to make things too easy for the viewer but has plenty to say beneath its opacity. It’s a gamble but what a payoff.
Header Image Source: YouTube // Neon Productions