Transit Review: A Haunting Journey Down a Road to Nowhere

Transit Transit (Music Box Films)

Christian Petzold adapts Anna Seghers’ 1942 Nazi-occupation novel with modern-day trappings, crafting an impeccable portrait of the ways ages-old fascism can manifest itself today.

Well we know where we’re going

But we don’t know where we’ve been.

The Talking Heads, “Road to Nowhere”

“It’s like 1930s Germany all over again” is a phrase we’ve been hearing (and saying) a lot over the last few years – with the rise of far-right nationalism in the US and abroad, modern society feels poised for the kind of explosive exploitation and genocidal instincts expressed in Europe in the 1940s. Perhaps this is why Christian Petzold (Phoenix) chose such an innovative approach to adapt Anna Seghers’ 1942 novel Transit in this way: a tale of refugees attempting to flee the encroaching Nazi occupation of France, told in the bright, sun-burnt trappings of the modern day. Riot gear replaces Nazi uniforms, wailing squad cars stand in for tanks and Jeeps; the police state is made quite literal.

But this ostensible modern retelling of the story is no mere gimmick: Petzold’s film is a masterwork of emotional restraint, an existential romantic tragedy about the liminal state refugees constantly live in – a grey area of lost loves and uncertain futures.

We learn little about Georg (Franz Rogowski), Transit‘s central figure, in the film’s opening minutes. All we know is his task, assigned to him in a Paris coffee shop as German forces roll into town – delivering letters from his friend Paul (Sebastian Hülk) to a prominent writer named Weidel, only to learn that the man has committed suicide; Paul is rounded up not long after. With nowhere else to turn, Georg flees by train to Marseilles with an injured man named Heinz (Ronald Kukulies), who dies en route. Now in Marseilles, Georg must find a way to exist while he waits for his time to flee the country, masquerading as the dead Weidel to take his spot on a boat to Mexico.

It’s in these moments that Transit finds its voice – capturing the heart-in-the-throat feeling of losing your old life, and struggling to live in the spaces between. Georg whiles away his days huddled in the consulate waiting for his turn to leave, or spending time with Heinz’s deaf-mute widow (Maryam Zaree) and adorable son Driss (Lilien Batman). Occasionally, he runs across a mysterious woman (Paula Beer), who turns out to be Weidel’s wife, searching for a man she doesn’t know is dead. Petzold’s elegant, patient filmmaking stretches these moments into hours, hours into days, illustrating the interminable futures that feel just out of reach for Transit‘s empathetic characters.

Transit‘s Marseilles is a waystation, a place filled with people who can’t leave until they know exactly where they’re going, and receive sufficient approval from their respective gatekeepers. For Georg and the other refugees, it’s a Kafkaesque bureaucracy of papers, transits, visas and connections. Coffee shops and bars are filled with people coming and going, Georg’s story depicted with cold, dispassionate narration from the city’s bartender (Matthias Brandt). It’s a city filled with people who all want the same thing, but who daren’t get too close to each other. After all, they might not see each other tomorrow.

For a film about losing one’s past (and, as a result, their soul), Petzold was smart to cast Rogowski, an unconventionally attractive actor with deep, piercing eyes, the kind that perpetually search no matter where their gaze is drawn. Rogowski’s energy is Joaquin Phoenix by way of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, a thin, handsome man with a powerful, restrained intensity behind him. In many ways, Georg is a cipher, a vehicle by which Petzold can peddle his themes of the omnipresent nature of historical amnesia – but Rogowski’s cold, restrained performance is perfect for the kind of man who desperately needs something to anchor himself to. Whether that’s his moments of rare normalcy with Driss, or the attraction he feels towards Beer’s Marie Weidel, Rogowski is proof positive of Petzold’s thesis that even in the worst of times, man constantly strives to feel something, anything.

As Transit hurdles towards its inevitably tragic climax, one borne of the erstwhile love triangle between Georg, Marie, and a doctor (Godehard Giese) who loves her enough to stay in Marseilles so she can get a visa, Petzold crafts a film that feels not unlike a decidedly more cynical version of Casablanca. That cynicism is welcome and warranted, however; in times of war and occupation, where man’s inhumanity to man extends not just to the exterminators but the bureaucrats, it becomes harder than ever to hold onto abstract things like love, home and history.

Amidst the window-dressing of Petzold’s slight modernizing of the material (clothing and buildings still feel roughly of the era, and there are no cell phones or Internet), he crafts an historically fuzzy, yet incredibly universal, story of the ways we try to move on from tragedy. People form relationships of convenience, but find glimmers of actual emotion amongst these arrangements. When your life is in danger and escape feels impossible, it’s more important than ever to hold on to your fellow man – even if they’re effectively a stranger.

Transit Trailer
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