Transit, the spellbinding new drama by writer-director Christian Petzold, poses an interesting set of hurdles for reviewers as well as audiences. It’s adapted from the 1944 novel Transit Visa by German anti-Nazi author Anna Seghers. The book tells the story of a concentration camp escapee who resorts to a stolen identity in his attempt to flee Nazified Europe in WWII through the port of Marseille, France.
But Petzold, director of the politically-tinged 2012 Barbara, tinkers with Seghers’ novel in a provocative way. Rather than trotting out another in the seemingly endless line of cinematic WWII adventures, his adaptation takes us into a tilted contemporary setting in which an unnamed power – possibly Germany, but also not-so-delicately hinted to be the United States — is in the process of occupying France and perhaps the rest of Europe, with the help of aggressive French police.
The main character, Georg (Franz Rogowski), is desperate to get to the apparently neutral country of Mexico. When a German compatriot refugee writer named Weidel unexpectedly commits suicide, Georg steals the manuscript of his novel and makes his way to Marseille, hoping to cadge a visa and sail to freedom under an assumed name. Coincidentally in Marseille, Weidel’s widow Marie (played by Paula Beer from Never Look Away), unaware of her husband’s fate, is waiting for him to join her in the getaway. The widow and the imposter, who don’t know each other, cross paths distractedly in the cafes and streets, not quite connecting the dots.
And so we have a familiar-looking Casablanca-style tale of international intrigue, but with 21st-century setting and wardrobe, and up-to-date 2019 anxieties over war, borders, displaced persons, sanctuary, and loyalty. With a little sex.
We suspect Petzold’s update is supposed to make us see modern displacement situations from a different angle. That takes some getting used to. Transit is crawling with anachronisms and metaphors, and the effect is quite alienating and confusing at first. But the distancing forces us to think outside familiar parameters. Georg and Marie may be playing Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman riffs with each other but their problems have just as much to do, thematically, with Aleppo refugees in inflatable rafts trying to keep from drowning in the Aegean, or the Rohingya forced exodus from Myanmar. By taking bulletins from current world news and wrapping them ever so slightly in romantic tropes from old movies, Transit jolts us into another groove.
Filmmaker Petzold ties up the potentially messy threads in an attractive, thought-provoking package, behind Rogowski’s and Beers’ performances and their characters’ increasingly desperate interactions. In Marseille Georg forms a tenuous relationship with a boy named Driss (Lilien Batman) and his mother (Maryam Zaree), a pair of North African refugees. In another scene, while being grilled by a U.S. consulate official Georg goes into an impassioned speech about writing essays in school, and the writers he met in “the camps.” Georg wears a perpetually haunted expression on his face as he gravitates among a claustrophobic cluster of buildings in the port city, with always one eye on the police.
Meanwhile the similarly anxious Marie becomes attached to a doctor (Godehard Giese), hedging her bets in case her missing spouse does not materialize. Her brief but crucial relationship with Georg has the desperation of a fugitive reflexively searching for a way out. The dialogue goes back and forth between French and German so often that the two languages almost become interchangeable – nice touch by Petzold. Veteran German composer Stefan Will’s music score adds a hypnotic continuo to the refugees’ panic.
The pen name of Anna Seghers belonged to Jewish-German writer Anna “Netty” Reiling (1900-1983), a communist who devoted her career to furthering progressive politics and opposing fascism. After escaping Nazi Germany in the early 1930s en route to France and Mexico, her novel The Seventh Cross was made into a somber 1944 Hollywood war drama by director Fred Zinneman, with a screenplay by Helen Deutsch, starring Spencer Tracy. Transit has the same urgency of purpose, crossed with a dejected tone of realization that the intolerance and political oppression of 1933-1945 Europe have not exactly vanished from the world. It’s an anti-romance with deceptively romantic ingredients, for viewers who appreciate seeing the big picture.