Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2019 Taipei Literature Film Festival.
The German fascists are taking Europe by force. Cities are closed off and raids are carried out block by block. If you disagree with the new regime or don’t have your papers in order, your best bet is to get yourself to Latin America (the US doesn’t want you), but with no flights, you’ll need a ship ticket, and transit visas for each place the ship stops en route. That entails long lines at various consulates, all while the number of ships at port dwindles one by one. Welcome to present-day France.
Or is it? One of the stand-out aspects of Christian Petzold’s Transit (2018), written by him based on the French Resistance-era novel by Anna Seghers, is the ambiguity of time. There are security camera footage and modern-day police gear, but no lighters or televisions; people write letters instead of email, with not a computer or smartphone in sight, and yet petroleum products are ubiquitous. Moreover, the editing (by Bettina Böhler) and camerawork (by cinematographer Hans Fromm) has the languor of a historical drama, but the lens and lighting mostly evoke a psychological thriller. Which brings up some questions: Why is protagonist Georg (Franz Rogowski) on the lam? How is he connected to Paul (Sebastian Hülk) and Heinz (Ronald Kukulies), who may or may not be part of a resistance movement (which may or may not exist)? And who is the narrator (Matthias Brandt), who’s ostensibly telling the story as Georg has related it to him, but whose narration sometimes isn’t reflected in the on-screen action? On top of all these is the biggest question: Will Georg make it out alive?
From the very first scene, filled with police sirens blaring past nervous people crowding a cafe, the film traffics in the dread of uncertainty. People are found dead, wind up dead, disappear without a trace, or—the worst fate of all—are compelled by loved ones to stay, even with ticket and visas in hand. As he makes his way to Marseilles, the stoic and reserved Georg is forever on the lookout, suspicious of everyone who interacts with him or even glances at him a second too long. The narrator says that Marseilles, being a port city, is filled with people desperate to tell their stories, but every story Georg hears is just like his, of people seeking a way out by hook or by crook—the film is set in limbo, the anteroom to hell.
So imagine how he feels when a beautiful woman (Paula Beer) taps him on the shoulder, only to look crestfallen when she sees his face. This happens thrice. Finally Georg unintentionally gets the jump on her for a change when he seeks out a doctor (Godehard Giese) willing to care for an undocumented child (Lilien Batman) and finds the woman lying on his bed. He learns (through some dialogue that uncannily echoes a previous scene) that her name is Marie Weidel, wife of the famous writer whose effects and identity he’d coincidentally come into possession of after the writer’s suicide—all unbeknownst to her. Things get really hairy when she tells him that Richard, the doctor, successfully got her onto a boat, only to see her disembark at the last moment, unable to leave without her husband. And Richard disembarked too, for he won’t leave without her.
This conundrum is at the center of the plot, but it also serves as vicarious expression of Georg’s own emotional bond with Driss, the boy, who lives with his Deaf mother, Heinz’s widow Melissa (Maryam Zaree), and looks up to Georg as a replacement for his always-absent father. That Batman’s performance is so layered, with heartbreaking vulnerability underneath the poker face he presents as he signs to his mother about, among other things, his own father’s death, paints Georg’s unhesitating abandonment as especially heartless. It takes a candid conversation between Georg and Richard to reveal the similarity in strength of their respective emotional bonds.
In the resolution of both relationships the film pulls a fast one. Arriving at Driss’s home to say goodbye before departing Marseilles, Georg finds that they’ve moved, unceremoniously replaced by another ethnic minority extended family. As for Marie, Georg gets her a ticket and visas (they actually come with the Weidel identity and are ironically meant for Weidel’s wife in the first place), and on the cab ride to the pier, as the two get intimate, we hold our breath to see how long he can keep his secret in, a secret that visibly gnaws at his conscience. There’s even a fake-out, when he interrupts their passionate smooching to reach into his jacket pocket for what we think are his Weidel identity papers, only for his hand to come back out with her travel documents. He ends up anticlimactically finessing the issue by pretending to have forgotten something, exiting the cab, and running to give his papers to Richard. The doctor and the widow make it onto the ship, and it sets sail—but the film has one final doozy of a twist up its sleeve.
Transit is the kind of film about which lazy critics might say that the atmosphere is its own character. So much of the film would simply fall apart without Petzold’s masterful control over the destabilizing mood. In that respect (and in its thematic concern with ethnic minorities) it has shades of Camus’s The Stranger, and the “stuck in a city in shambles” setting faintly recalls The Plague; look at the plot, though, and you’ll see a certain Ancient Greek man rolling a boulder up a hill.
Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large.