“Absurd” is one of those words that old dudes I read in grad school, theorists and novelists like Franz Kafka and Albert Camus and Eugène Ionesco, threw around to try and make sense of our nonsensical reality. In a 1957 essay, Ionesco described the word as the following:
‘Absurd’ is that which is devoid of purpose … Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless.’
Think of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, in which salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect, with no reasoning behind it, or Kafka’s The Trial, in which Josef K. is arrested and imprisoned, with no explanation of why he is being persecuted or prosecuted. He doesn’t know and we don’t know, but the authority who brings him in puts him through an increasingly irrational series of tests and processes anyway. The point isn’t what happens, but how these individuals react to those outside circumstances: How do you adapt yourself to a situation that has no beginning and no end?
One of my favorite works of Camus’s is his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in which he uses the Greek myth of a selfish king being forced to push a boulder up a hill for eternity, never to reach the top, to consider the human condition and the meaningless of life. As Camus wrote in that essay, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” It’s something I repeat to myself in moments that feel particularly hopeless, in a weird mixture of cynicism and sincerity. If someone molds themselves to a task that seems fruitless, the satisfaction comes not from completion, but from dedication. That seems ridiculous, but sometimes that’s all you have.
I say all this because I think the best way to approach the German film Transit (which is currently playing in limited release around the U.S., has a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, and was reviewed for us by Kayleigh out of the Glasgow Film Festival), is to approach it with this mentality: That an acknowledgment and understanding of the absurd is key to accepting the crueler aspects of life. Certain things feel pointless. All of us will eventually die. We are constantly surrounded by sadness and suffering and loneliness. But what do you after that? After you’ve taken stock of your surroundings, after you hear the bad men knocking on the door, after your ways out are either blocked or removed? Who are you then?
SPOILERS FOR TRANSIT FOLLOW
Transit is an adaptation of the same-named 1942 novel by Anna Seghers, in which an unnamed narrator tells the story of a man who has escaped a Nazi concentration camp and travels to Marseille, a port town swelling with people trying to leave France. Director Christian Petzold transports that story to present day, adding an additional layer of familiarity—and fear—to this tale of fascism’s spread throughout Europe (and, it’s implied, the rest of the world). Soldiers have modern cars and modern guns. People are walking around in contemporary fashions. And that terror that we used to be able to leave behind us when we watch films or television shows about the Holocaust, that feeling that has been steadily advancing more and more over the past five or so years in the United States, is more urgent here, more palpable.
The film focuses on Georg (Franz Rogowski, who gave me young Joaquin Phoenix vibes), who plans to flee Paris after delivering two letters to the infamous Communist writer Weidel. One is from his publisher, saying that they cannot publish his latest work, and one is from his wife, begging for him to return to her. But when Georg finds Weidel, the man has slit his wrists, and the proprietor of the hotel where he was staying has disposed of the body. There is a passport with Weidel’s name and picture on it, and people in the world who still know him and admire him and love him, but Weidel no longer exists. And another of Georg’s comrades, shot during an escape attempt, dies too—a man with a wife and a child waiting for him in Marseilles, all planning to flee over the Alps together.
So: Two men dead on Georg’s watch, two men whose identities he assumes. He travels to the port city, where he’s told by locals that he can only rent a room if he promises the authorities he’s going to eventually leave. “I can only stay here if I can prove I don’t want to stay?” Georg asks, and that’s a vexing question with an equally vexing answer. But who will Georg go with? He bonds with the dead man’s son, playing soccer with him and buying him ice cream, and he also keeps running into a woman, Marie (Paula Beer), who gleefully embraces him more than once, only to disappointedly react when she realizes he’s not who she thought. Because she thinks he’s Weidel, her husband returned from Paris, when in reality Georg is just pretending to be him, having glued a picture of himself into the writer’s passport, visited the U.S. consulate and identified as him, gained visas and travel paperwork in his name.
Georg himself has no real personality, no real interests, outside of survival. He wanders around Marseille day after day. He eats, he drinks, he rereads Weidel’s manuscript, he makes small talk with other people trying to get out, other Jews who are hiding. During a raid in the hotel where he’s staying, everyone averts their eyes from the woman being dragged out—“It was shame,” the narrator observes. But Marie is similarly blank; her main motivation is finding her husband, returning to a sort of companionship that is comfortable when all else is unknowable.
When Georg and Marie gingerly step toward a romantic relationship with each other, he pours all of himself into her—even while pretending to others to be her husband—while she holds back, convinced that her husband will return, not knowing what Georg has done or is doing. Oh, and did I mention that Marie is also in a relationship with another guy at the same time, a doctor who Georg asks to treat that young boy he’s befriended, for whom he stepped into a surrogate father role? All these lives tangentially related to each other, the same faces spotted in the street or in the café or in the consulate, all subject to the “cleansing” to come, all trying to maintain sanity in a situation that feels increasingly insane.
While Georg and Marie remain out of sync with each other, connecting but never quite meeting, they encapsulate the entirety of Transit—how absurdity works in circular ways, how it adopts its own rhythms. First Marie chases Georg, then Georg chases Marie. That mother and her son, who were going to cross the Alps? They’re healthy, then they’re sick, then they’re healthy again, then in sickness, they finally leave. Georg is Weidel, then he passes the identity off to Marie’s doctor boyfriend, then he loses it when the ship they’re on sinks. And in the film’s final moments, when German soldiers are running through the streets, invading Marseille and attacking people, when Georg is sitting in the café where we learn that the film’s narrator is the bartender, and Georg turns toward the door—is he smiling because Marie is back, because she’s somehow survived, or is he smiling because he’s given up, because every other person he’s pretended to be is gone, because he can finally be himself in capture and in death?
In his theoretical work The Theatre of the Absurd, Marin Esslin said of absurd writers, “They present their sense of the irrationality of the human condition in the form of highly lucid and logically constructed reasoning,” and so it goes for Transit, too. Nothing that happens in the film is illogical. The fascist force is acting in a militaristic way that is recognizable to us. The questions the U.S. Consulate asks of Georg, although they change every time, are not out of the realm of possibility for an agent of the state trying to test the worthiness of an individual attempting to gain access to their country. Of course a wife would want to reunite with her husband. Of course a son would miss his father. But add it all up, and Transit becomes more perplexing than its parts, more disconcerting because of its tight grip on realism, more memorable because of its use of the absurd to highlight the ease with which fascism operates and spreads discord among us. “Who are you?” Marie asks Georg, and Georg has no answer. Do any of us?
Image sources (in order of posting): Eleventh Street Lot, Eleventh Street Lot