Timeless ‘Transit’ Forges a Path Out of Purgatory

Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski star in Christian Petzold’s “Transit,” which Indiewire describes as “like ‘Casablanca’ but written by Franz Kafka.” (Photo: Music Box Films)
German filmmaker Christian Petzold reminds us that the plight of refugees is not constrained by time or events. In his haunting dramatic thriller “Transit,” they are the collateral damage of war.

Petzold based his latest film on the 1944 novel “Transit Visa” by Anna Seghers, herself a World War II refugee. This many-layered story, which captures the desperation and loneliness of those trying to escape the Nazi occupation of France, will be Fresno Filmworks’ May 10 screening to end its 2018-19 season.

Petzold is best known for his sixth film, “Barbara,” about an East German doctor whose failed attempt to flee to the West forces her to remain in East Berlin. Although in “Transit,” it is clear characters are fleeing France in the wake of German occupation and Nazi cleansing, the time period is (conceptually) kept current, yet nebulous — a bit like the lives of the characters. The soldiers wear no recognizable symbols of the Nazi party and resemble modern-day French police.

The neo-noir style “Transit” was originally intended to be a period picture. Petzold said in an interview with Music Box Films that the novel “is a transit space, a boarding zone, between Europe and the USA, but also between home and a homeless place. It’s like purgatory.”

Georg, played by Franz Rogowski — whose likeness to Joaquin Phoenix is uncanny — has been asked to deliver letters to an anti-fascist writer named Weidel. Finding him dead in his hotel room, Georg takes Weidel’s papers and an unpublished manuscript and assumes his identity. From that point, a great deal of waiting occurs; Georg stands in long lines and meets with immigration authorities to obtain his transit visa and passage out of France. Georg, who must travel to Marseille to board his ship, is entrusted with the care of an injured man who is to be reunited with his family. The man dies on the journey and Georg must deliver the news to his family. He develops a relationship with the man’s son Driss, who sees Georg as a sort of father figure.

A number of characters cross Georg’s path; Weidel’s wife, who is unaware her husband is dead, and a doctor also trying to leave Marseille. Their relationships are complex, and while they all suffer the despair of those displaced by war, they seem to cling to each other in an attempt to find human connection.

In a particularly moving scene, Georg repairs a broken radio for young Driss. It plays a song Georg’s mother sang to him about animals returning from a journey. In that moment of tenderness, Georg captured my heart.

While Georg steals the identity of Weidel, Petzold points out, “… he’s received by people with real desires … by the end of the movie he is someone.” It is no coincidence that Weidel’s manuscript that Georg carries is the story of a man waiting to enter Hell, only to learn he is already there.

“Transit” will resonate with audiences as an allegory that is timeless. The plight of the refugee remains a constant in the world; “Transit” evokes an awareness of their struggle to find their home.

Cindy Peters Duzi serves on the Filmworks board as venue director and teaches high school English. She blogs about current cinema on her Instagram.