As much as “Transit” is about displacement and flux, it is equally concerned with the pursuit of stability and a sense of home. In his latest film, German director Christian Petzold of “Barbara” and “Phoenix” fame triumphantly brings to life the poignant story of a German man fleeing fascism during World War II. By setting this neo-noir love story in contemporary France, he lends the film an intense feeling of urgency that demands its story be told.
“Transit” is based on Anna Segher’s 1944 novel of the same name. It traces the life of Georg (Franz Rogowski), a frustrated young radio technician who attempts to help one of his friends, Heinz (Ronald Kukulies), escape Paris to Marseille. At this time, many refugees crowd Marseille in the hopes of acquiring transit documents from various consulates in order to travel internationally. Though Heinz dies during their attempted escape, Georg forges into Marseille alone to bring the news of Heinz’s death to his wife and young son, Melissa (Maryam Zaree) and Driss (Lilien Batman). Around this time, Georg comes across the letters, travel documents, and the last unpublished work of Franz Weidel, a communist writer who has recently committed suicide. Once in Marseille, Georg adopts the identity of the dead writer in order to gain safe passage to Mexico. When Georg falls in love with a mysterious woman called Marie (Paula Beer), the plot becomes all the more complicated as she turns out to be Weidel’s estranged wife. Marie does not know that her husband has died, nor does she realize that her husband’s movements, which she traces carefully every day, are in fact those of another man entirely.
Part of what makes the film so compelling is its central characters. Though he is in the process of fleeing the country, Georg rapidly establishes relationships with kind neighbors and fellow fugitives, who challenge his decision to leave. His fatherly relationship with Driss is particularly touching, adding a softness to Georg’s rather haunted character. His relationship with Marie develops incredibly quickly, almost to the point where it might seem unbelievable, but the chemistry between Rogowski and Beer is clear from the outset. Theirs is a relationship that is not easy to understand, because Marie is consumed by a torrid of feelings for the different men in her life, but Beer beautifully portrays this indecision and volatility in a way that makes her character’s complexities more understandable.
With his precise ability to capture the briefest moments and smallest details, Georg is clearly a born storyteller. Rogowski plays him exquisitely, emphasizing Georg’s gravitational pull and charisma. Throughout, Rogowski maintains an intense expression that is at once full of trauma and wistfulness that naturally appeals to the character’s around him. His expression and air are so compelling that even the audience cannot help but be invested in his fate.
Rogowki also imbues Georg with an empathy that makes all the other characters want to tell him their stories. This is why Georg finds himself constantly running into the same refugees and forced to hear their stories, all dark and harrowing — one German Jewish woman has been stuck in the city for months and must bring the dogs of American tourists back to the US in exchange for safe passage and documents to start a life across the Atlantic. As the characters tell their stories, their narrations interrupt each other’s, as Petzold employs an editing technique that blends together the characters’ stories to create one massive tableau of despair.
With its limited music and narration, the film establishes its moody and rather old Hollywood-like atmosphere early on. The film’s minimal soundtrack, with its occasional somber piano riffs and guitar strums, allows the viewer to focus on small cinematic details like the pregnant silences within the dialogue and lengthened moments of suspense. A constant narration running throughout the film creates a sense of fatality, as the narrator knows what will eventually happen to the protagonist. The irony is deep: Part of why Georg is so attracted to Weidel’s last novel is because he enjoys the sense of control he has over the characters by knowing their fates.
By transporting the story to present day France, Petzold makes the film multidimensional. That brilliant choice not only distinguishes it from other period films, but also allows the viewer to focus on the characters and their relationships. Though costumes and extensive sets usually set the atmosphere of war films, this pared-down set and costuming help convey the intricacies of the plot. Contemporary Marseille, with its growing number of immigrants, is the perfect setting for representing a city with countless numbers of WWII refugees seeking visas to escape from an increasingly real and terrifying vision of a fascist Europe.
Altogether, the film has a clear, beautiful vision. At once melancholy and touching, “Transit” is not content with being a tear-jerker or just another WWII drama. Petzold distinguishes it with its almost psychological diagnostic of complicated human relationships and displacement. It’s an immaculate and nuanced study of hope and desire that will foster conversation about immigration and the ever present shadow of fascism that colors the world to this day.
—Staff writer Aline G. Damas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.