Film Review: Transit (2018), Dir. Christian Petzold
If you like being kept in the dark, with an opaque conundrum within a conundrum (if this film were a photograph it would be a double exposure), a compelling, diverse and attractive cast of characters, atmospheric locations (Paris and Marseilles) in service to a tense romantic thriller, this one is for you. Based on Anna Segher’s contemporaneous 1944 novel set in occupied France, Petzold has reset this adaptation in contemporary France with another German occupation. The societal milieu of the book and the film is the immigrant population who have managed to escape to France only to find themselves, once again, in mortal jeopardy as the fascist army’s “cleansing” operations are being implemented. This disjunct keeps the viewer off-kilter at first, and I’m not certain that it enhances the film in any meaningful way. But neither does it detract.
The central character among the hunted and haunted is Georg (Frantz Rogowski), a loner with no evident history or purpose, seemingly unconscious of the imminent danger, but with friends in the resistance who engage him to aid and abet their plans to emigrate out of France. To that end he agrees to deliver two letters to Weidel, a writer of anti-fascist articles who is a high value target, in deep hiding. When he gets to him he finds he has committed suicide and his identity is unknown. Georg takes a manuscript and his passport along with the two letters. The friend who gave him the assignment has been arrested so no one knows anything, including the fact that Weidel has died.
He is then offered passage to Marseille, the jumping off point for all of those fleeing the Germans. The payback for this arrangement is that he must accompany Ernst, who is mortally wounded, on one of those horrible spaces under the train cars which carry cargo to the docks of Marseille. On the way, he reads Weidel’s manuscript and Ernst dies. When he opens Weidel’s letters he discovers that there is a visa and passage to Mexico available from the Mexican consulate in Marseilles. There is also a letter from Weidel’s wife full of affection and asking for forgiveness for her infidelity, entreating him to meet her in Marseille.
Georg, who seems to be totally guileless, goes to the Mexican consulate with only one plan. He needs money and hopes to receive a fee for the manuscript from the Mexicans who seem to revere Weidel. However, they misunderstand the purpose of his visit and believe him to be Weidel and hand over money, visa, and passage to Mexico for him and his wife. He takes it and begins to plan accordingly to use that identity and flee to safety. While he awaits the date for his departure he locates the widow of Ernst, who died on the train. She is a young African deaf mute with an adorable, sickly young son, Driss, who Georg befriends. This secondary plot allows for the entanglements which ensue, involving a mysterious young woman Marie (Paula Beer), who keeps appearing and mistaking Georg for someone else, and her lover, a doctor named Richard (Godehard Giese). They are all part of the anxious immigrant population jockeying for visas and increasingly desperate as news of deportations and incarcerations of the fascists get closer to Marseilles.
The world of the German emigrés seems remarkably small - centered around the Mexican consulate and a nearby cafe from where the habitués are constantly running into each other or spotted passing by the window. The bartender, at times, seems to be narrating their comings and goings, using the words of Anna Seghers’s novel. They are all living in an existential limbo, filled with secrets and lies, fear and paranoia. Both of these locations allow for bits and pieces of the lives of others to be revealed as they interact with each other. Petzold is able to reveal the ceaseless, alternating states of hope and hopelessness, desperation and despair.
But Petzold seems to prefer characters with minimal backstories and his two main characters say very little. Georg communicates with his large dark eyes which sit like bruises in his pale smooth face, which bears a close resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix. He is almost a blank page allowing others to reveal themselves. When he finally meets the enigmatic Marie who is waiting for her husband and checking in at the consulate every day, he realizes that Weidel is the husband and she has no idea that he is dead. This is a dilemma that causes Georg to take charge of his actions. There is genuine chemistry between the enigmatic Marie, who says little and reveals less. (Paula Beer specializes in enigmatic characters). Nonetheless, whatever he does, it is still a No Exit existence. This is confirmed as the credits roll accompanied by David Byrne’s We’re on the Road to Nowhere. Finally, clarity. A very intriguing puzzle left unsolved.
You can watch a trailer for the film here