Christian Petzold’s fascinating present-day World War II film Transit is thematically and narratively dense, but there’s nothing dense in the way it goes about handling it.
The Long Waitby Gus Edgar
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
In the near-future, or perhaps in a parallel universe, a gaggle of white refugees line up. They are waiting for their transits, so they can flee a now-occupied France and set sail to America or Mexico – in the meantime, they tell their stories to one another.
Stuck in this mass is Franz Rogowski’s Georg, a slender, mumbling figure who sits in silence as the other refugees talk at him. Transit’s narrator tells us that each of these refugees have stories of their own; each of them alike in their difference. A harmonious discordance. This is what Christian Petzold’s latest offering is about – or at least, one of the many things it is about: the stories we tell, the stories we listen to, and the stories we ignore.
Of course, Petzold’s latest is about many other things; he has constructed a story bristling with suppressed energy, its characters in a constant state of flux. We follow one of them – Georg – who has managed to escape from Paris and flee to Marseille, documents of a dead artist in tow; here, he will assume his identity.
It’s a discombobulating first thirty minutes, where we are tested in coming to terms with a conceit that skates dangerously close to ludicrousness. For you see, Transit is an adaptation of Anna Seghers’ same-titled World War II novel, with one slight twist: it’s set in what seems to be the present day.
Disorienting though it may be, we eventually become accustomed to Petzold’s unusual decision: with talk of refugees, visas and vicious law enforcement, it’s easy to see how Seghers’ novel relates to the present day, and Transit applies a timeliness to it that transcends history.
Georg, along with the many other refugees that populate Marseille, move around and interact with one another, without really going anywhere; they may as well be walking on treadmills. Trapped in stasis, or in a suffocating form of purgatory, Georg first visits a boy and her deaf mother; his attempts to help fade with farce – a consistent element of Transit that often slyly veers it into the realm of cruel black comedy (substantiated by a bleak and knowingly preposterous ending) – and, instead, an identity crisis thriller-cum-romance ensues.
It’s easy to see how Transit could get bogged down under all its different strands of narrative, but that’s kind of the point: each character has their story, and that boy and her mother? That’s the story we eventually ignore. The story we listen to, on the other hand, involves the dead artist’s very-much-alive wife, Marie (Paula Beer), who’s comically informed that her husband is in Marseille.
Infringing on proceedings is a hapless sad-sack doctor, Richard (Godehard Giese), the third player in a love triangle that everyone seems to recognise and no-one seems to care about. He’s simply fuel for the film’s engine, a congested old motor that runs on ennui and displacement.
And skirting on the periphery of Georg’s endeavours is an unnamed woman with two dogs, who invites him to dinner not as a gesture of romance or kindness, but simply because she can’t stand eating alone. Hers is another ignored story, its end a mood-musterer that’s played out for Lanthimos-like laughs.
All these characters conglomerate in one pizzeria, the sole safe haven in Marseille’s uneasy environment. Its bartender, as it turns out, is Transit’s narrator, who enjoys to arbitrarily describe Georg’s actions as he’s simultaneously carrying them out. It’s a device with questionable effect, often more distracting than engaging, but in a film about the stories of bit-part characters, it helps to reiterate that Georg’s is just another one.
A lyrical depiction of a world drifting into comatose, Petzold’s Transit is a beguiling and scattershot quasi-war film that demands a second viewing in order to untangle the webs its characters weave. There’s something extraordinary hidden among its thematic density – and as confounding as Transit is at first, its interpretation of our world’s current-affairs climate could not be clearer.
Transit is now screening at the 68th Berlin Film Festival.