Sartre declared that hell is other people; Christian Petzold’s Transit suggests that hell is waiting for other people. An enigma of time and memory, where the past and the present merge like train lines at a terminus, Petzold’s follow up to his masterful Phoenix is another romantic riff on a cinematic classic. Where Phoenix drew strongly from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Transit is like a mystifying doppelgänger of Casablanca, a love triangle between sad souls fleeing from the authorities in Nazi-occupied France. Just as people have to “wait, and wait and wait and wait” in Casablanca, so too are characters in Transit forced into a purgatorial existence in Marseille.
Only this isn’t quite the Nazi-occupied France you might be expecting. Petzold makes the bold move of transposing all of the events from the 1940s story (based on Anna Segher’s novel) in a modern-day 21st-century context. It’s initially jarring, as Petzold thrusts us into this world in media res, forcing us to put together the pieces on our own which I found intellectually stimulating and an emotional thrill, though I can imagine this wouldn’t be the case for all audiences. With this approach, Petzold seems to suggest that the fascism and Nazi ideology of the past hasn’t truly left us. Such a possibility is confirmed by own news cycle: with a new xenophobic nationalism rising in nation-states worldwide, a Europe where immigrants and refugees are either hunted down or treated poorly isn’t hard to imagine. The conceit doesn’t always work–I began to wonder why mobile phones and email weren’t being used–but it’s often a striking when it does.
The love triangle at the center of Transit has two clear partners, with an ever-shifting third party. Georg (Franz Rogowski, a doppelgänger of Joaquin Phoenix) finds himself fleeing Paris while carrying the papers of a German writer, Weidel, who committed suicide while waiting to hear from his estranged wife, Marie (Paula Beer). Finding himself alone and wandering in Marseille, Georg assumes the identity of Weidel in order to guarantee a visa and transit papers from the Mexican consulate. To make the most of the waiting–and to complicate this love story–Marie has shacked up with Richard (Godehard Giese), a lonely doctor awaiting his own transport out of Marseille. While neither of the two men are her husband, Marie seems to be drawn to both romantically for mysterious reasons, ultimately leading to a confrontation between truth and fantasy which will determine who leaves and who stays in Marseille.
Rogowski is no Bogart, but he does imbue Georg with a combination of ruthless pragmatics and warm tenderness. Regarding the former, Georg is quick to do whatever it takes to survive, whether punching a police officer in the face or pretending to be a dead man in order to woo his wife and use his visa. With the latter, we see glimpses of kindness as Georg befriends Driss (Lilien Batman), a North African immigrant boy whose father died while fleeing Paris with Georg. He also connects with a lonely architect (Barbara Auer) as she too waits and waits and waits. The pragmatics and tenderness mesh together as Georg notices and is drawn to Marie, falling in love with her from a distance as he watches her search frantically for her husband, unaware that he’s already dead. It’s both affectionate and a bit creepy as Georg pines for Marie while still assuming Weidel’s identity for his own purposes. Beer is a great in a role seeming meant for Petzold’s usual lead actress, Nina Hoss, creating a sense of urgency in her longing for her missing husband. In all this, Transit manages to honor its cinematic and novelistic roots via its Casablanca allusions and overt literary narration, reminding us that the past is always with us even as we’re just passing through this world. In a sense, we’re all just passing through this world, living in the in-between of birth and death. Whether Petzold offers a satisfying rumination on this time-bound existence is up to the viewer, but I found Transit to be a dreamy drama bolstered by its romantic location and subtly powerful performances. As time goes by, we’ll always have Marseille.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6675244/