Adapted from the 1944 novel of the same name by Anna Seghers, writer-director Christian Petzold’s Transit behaves to some degree like Shakespeare in modern dress. The story follows a German man, Georg (Franz Rogowski), escaping facist-occupied Paris to Marseille, and there encountering other refugees, forging connections and affections with them, making arrangements at consulates for passage and visas to Mexico and the USA, all while rumour and hearsay about the spread of the occupation to the port city hangs over him. But with markers from nearly a century later – present-day vehicles in particular, although much of the clothing lives in an ageless world that bridges the years, and an ethnic component that makes more sense in today’s world than the Forties – Petzold turns a historical narrative into a fable of creeping fascism and the refugee crisis of today. Indeed, the idea that Transit functions like modern-dress Shakespeare might make it sound terribly stilted and artificial, but the real power of Transit‘s transposition to the modern day is just how perfectly it works. Transit‘s world is deeply convincing.
Mike argues that part of the reason that this is the case is the film’s focus on the refugees, and the details of day-to-day life in a city merely threatened by future occupation rather than currently undergoing it. The film’s explicit visual symbols of occupation – stormtroopers lining up citizens against walls, dragging refugees from their families – do stand out, and are both necessary and necessarily rare. That the occupation looms is enough, for the most part – it’s what it makes people do and feel that is the film’s focus, and it doesn’t need to build a Children of Men-style dystopia to explore that. The film is described on the poster, in rather an exciting quote from Indiewire, as “Casablanca as written by Kafka” – a glib line that we partially agree with. The Casablanca connection is clear, at least in basic terms being a complicated World War II love story set in a – for now – safe haven for refugees, the assignment and value of visas and travel documents of constant importance. The Kafka connection is inaccurate, the bureaucratic systems depicted in the Mexican and US consulates being ones that, while overwhelmed by vast numbers of refugees, aren’t designed to confuse or dehumanise. Whatever ails Georg isn’t Kafkaesque.
Georg, as José points out, is something of a cipher. We hear little of his story, know only one or two real details about him of any substance – and even one of those may be a lie – but to the film’s credit it’s not something we ever question. His mental state, reasons for behaving as he does, are always clear, if, as Mike suggests, a little frustrating at one point. Through him, we are able to hear people’s stories, those he encounters in queues and cafés keen to tell him who they are and why they’re there. Being able to tell one’s story and having it heard is a central theme to the film, as well as the ways in which we change or misremember our stories to our benefit – a slightly unreliable narrator occasionally describing things that differ in details from how we’re shown them. Georg may not speak much, may not tell anyone his story during the course of the film, but the narration tells his story in the third person – José having read that some or all of the narration is lifted directly from Seghers’ novel, though having not read the novel, we cannot be entirely certain of how much.
The narration, when it faithfully describes what we see, comes across to Mike as rather needless – showing and telling at the same time to pointless effect. Mentioning one scene in which the narration tells us that a number of refugees feel shame for standing by as a woman is violently separated from her family, he complains that the film should be able to convey this visually. José argues that underlining the point through narration is purposeful, bringing home that we in the present day should feel the same shame for standing by as refugees and immigrants have the same things done to them today. The narration changes a dramatisation into a call to action, and in so doing the film constantly asks us pointed ethical and moral questions of ourselves.
In short, Transit is a considerable film and unquestionably worth your time. We can’t recommend it highly enough.
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With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.