Transit – Film Review
by Diana Perez Garcia
Directed by Christian Petzold
Written by: Christian Petzold (adaptation), Anna Seghers (novel)
Cast: Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Glese
Opens on Friday August 16th
“Who is the first to forget? The one who leaves or the one who is left?” asks one of the asylum seekers stranded in Marseille in Christian Petzold’s Transit. This question, with its intimations of the haunting pain that informs the migrant’s experience, represents the backbone of this bold transposition of Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel of the same name to our own era. Petzold sketches his answer in this unsparing account of the journey of German camp escapee Georg (Franz Rogowski), whose attempt to flee a France on the verge of occupation, takes him from Paris to Marseille in the hope of avoiding persecution, internment and death.
At the opening of Transit, Georg moves with the frenzied and lonesome compulsion of the survivor. Every step of his escape out of Paris appears inevitable in spite of the unexpected events that he is forced to face and Rogowski embodies the coiled tension experienced by his character in a restrained and nuanced performance. Petzold has chosen to strip all references to the historical setting of his source material: in one of the opening scenes, Georg sits in the kind of corner bar tabac a tourist may wander into in search of directions, and he bolts out of his stool at the sight of police carrying the kind of bullet proof shield that peppers riot footage on the news. Cars, motorbikes, and signs are equally of our time. Petzold has surgically removed from his script all spoken reference to the Nazi occupation of France that frames Seghers’ novel but the deliberate absence of post-World War II technology, and a choice of costume and props that nods to the 1940s, ensure that that era is never far from the viewer’s mind. This layering effect is central to Petzold’s attempt to address the current migrant crisis and the return of far right ideology through his updating of Segher’s story of a German Jewish refugee’s journey out of occupied Europe.
As he establishes contact with the Resistance’s underbelly in Paris, Georg’s path crosses with that of two other fugitives: a seriously wounded man who becomes his companion in the clandestine journey to Marseille and a writer named Weidel who, after his death by suicide, leaves behind his last manuscript, a series of personal letters and two exit visas for Mexico for him and his wife, who is waiting for him at Marseille. These connections represent a turning point for Georg when he is forced to follow the thread of the two men’s private lives upon his arrival in Marseille. Petzold paints the Southern French port as a queasy purgatory harbouring the desperate yearnings of hundreds of asylum seekers hoping to be granted passage or transit visas to various destinations in the New World. Their stories greatly invigorate and complicate the film’s narrative and emotional landscape. Transit may offer the viewer the adrenaline boost of escape in its opening scenes but it is far from escapist, and the pace with which it moves to its conclusion is both haunting and deliberate.
Throughout Transit, Petzold manages to vividly represent the risk and pain experienced by those who face political persecution (a blood-curding scream in a train stands out as one of the most affecting recordings of physical pain that I have ever heard in a film.) It also succeeds, to a great extent because of Rogowski’s performance, at painting how ingenuity, resourcefulness, affection and generosity can coexist with exhaustion, excruciating hunger, fear and despair. Georg’s encounters with a refugee child (Lilien Batman), a lovelorn doctor (Godehard Glese), a desperate architect (Barbara Auer) and a stranded wife (Paula Beer) represent the catalyst that allows us insight into a character, that in his frantic effort to survive, was hermetically sealed at the beginning of the film. They not only help humanise him, they offer a mosaic of the complex lives at stake in any humanitarian crisis. Through its portrayal of lives suspended on the threshold between death and survival, Transit stages the ethical dilemma posed by the refugee crisis at both an intimate and public level. These are characters attempting to walk the tight-rope that separates self-interest and love; loyalty and betrayal; memory and forgetfulness. They are also emblems for our own collective failings and responsibilities in the current refugee crisis.
There were some moments in Transit where I felt an echo of the great Otto Preminger noir Laura (incidentally, like Segher’s novel, also released in 1944). At first I thought this may be because Petzold’s film has aesthetic touches that for obvious reasons are reminiscent of that era but then I came to realise that this is because Transit, like Laura, is a film about the haunting presence of those who are absent. The private experience of loss is as chilling and unforgettable as the ghostly tap on the shoulder Georg experiences towards the close of the film but Transit also suggests that the collective loss of migrants’ lives, which we are currently tolerating, will be just as indelible.