With “Transit,” German director Christian Petzold picks up right where he left off, continuing the work of his previous films and their interrogation of Germany’s oppressive past. But unlike his past work, “Transit” brings that history into direct contact with the modern world, merging the transgressions of the past with those of the present moment in remarkably literal fashion. The film centers on German refugees passing through Nazi-occupied France as they prepare to flee further west. Such a narrative premise carries obvious resonances with the migrant crises dominating today’s global politics, but Petzold is not satisfied with mere suggestion. Here he takes what would be implicit metaphor and makes it conspicuous.
The story, adapted from Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel, ostensibly takes place in the midst of World War II as Nazi forces are sweeping over Europe, but the film is ambiguous in its approach to period detail: characters compose letters on old-fashioned typewriters as soldiers in modern riot gear march through the streets below their windows. This is not a blunder on the part of the production designers, nor is this is not an instance of a film updating an older story to the present day; rather “Transit” is set in both time periods at once. World War II plays out over the backdrop of the 21st century. Refugees of the 20th century Nazi occupation and contemporary emigrants of North Africa and the Middle East all converge in Marseille at once.
In making this simple but evocative choice Petzold’s stance is clear: our present world does not merely resemble the fascism of 1940s Europe, but the two are interchangeable. Now is then and then is now. The world of the film is one caught in between the past and present, existing in a blurry intersection of two eras. This collision of time periods then also serves as a mirror to the film’s characters who are trapped between their ravaged home and the promise of freedom abroad. It is a gimmick, yes, but an effective and impressively executed one.
Petzold throws us almost immediately into the action, giving us little time to get to know our protagonist, let alone to make sense of the aforementioned ambiguity, before Georg is on his way from Paris to Marseille, fleeing just as German troops have overtaken the city. The film provides us with little backstory for Georg, and Franz Rogowski’s performance does not allow us much access into the character’s psyche. His facial scars and raspy lisp provide the suggestion of compelling personhood, but Georg’s face is mostly inscrutable. Before long he has unwittingly acquired the legal documents of a fellow German exile named Weidel, a political writer who has since taken his own life. Crucially, Weidel has already been cleared for a visa from the Mexican government: here lies Georg’s way out. This somewhat elucidates the blankness of Rogowski’s performance. He is signalling Georg’s fundamental unknowability, and indeed we are always trying to figure out just what he is seeking in this port city. Is it simply safe passage? Or do his desires go beyond mere survival? He slips in and out of various assumed identities throughout the film, but Georg himself remains one of the film’s mysteries.
Petzold’s previous film “Phoenix” is often read as an alternate take on Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” and in the same sense “Transit” is something of a spin on “Casablanca,” with mysterious expat Georg and the beguiling Marie (Paula Beer) playing the star crossed lovers a la Bogart and Bergman. But the wrinkle here is that Marie is not a former lover of Georg, but of the writer he is impersonating. We are first introduced to Marie as one of the many figures who seem to drift in and out of Georg’s daily life in Marseille. She bumps into Georg so often that one might take their repeated chance encounters as acts of fate, and sure enough their meetings eventually develop into a romance. In reality, though, it is not fate that brought them together — it is Weidel. Marie is searching for her lost husband, and hearing rumors that he is now residing in Marseille she chases down every clue. But of course, when she receives word that Weidel just left the Mexican consulate, the report is not really of her husband, it’s Georg. She thinks that she keeps barely missing him when in fact she has already found him in Georg, but in that sense she has also lost him without yet realizing it.
If this all seems rather complicated, that’s because it is. The complexities of identity and crisscrossed relationships are what Petzold is interested in exploring. His Marseille is a knotty mess of transitory uncertainty, a city that serves as a purgatorial prison, trapping its would-be-temporary inhabitants in a sort of limbo. It is a space of perpetual unease — the threat of violence from militant authorities is always present, lending the film a persistently buzzing tension even as its pacing is more languid. Time, identities and security are constantly in flux, and by the film’s end its characters seem no closer to escape than when it began. If there were any questions as to the characters’ fates once the film concludes, Petzold’s decision to drop the Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” over the end credits provides perhaps the film’s only straightforward conclusion. The looped narrative structure can be a lot for one to wrap their head around, but the dreamlike world Petzold crafts is worth immersing oneself in. What his film does is get at this essential sense of displacement, the dissonance that comes with being perpetually in transit.