I have to confess: despite my appreciation of German auteur Christian Petzold, I was nervous about his new film Transit. During TIFF 2014, I sat across from him when he announced the project; an adaptation of Anna Seghers’ eponymous, semi-autobiographical 1944 novel of desperate flight from Fascist Europe. When it was announced that the film was relocating the story into the present, doubts set in about a potentially off-kilter comparison between Fascist Germany and the current refugee crisis. Those doubts were dispersed within minutes. Petzold immediately establishes an alternate universe, fully keeping the 1940s story, but with a 2018 setting. A German man, Georg (Franz Rogowski), flees to France after the Nazi invasion and assumes the identity of a dead author whose papers he possesses. Stuck in Marseilles, he keeps running into a young woman, Marie (Paula Beer), desperate to find her missing husband — the very man he is impersonating.
What could have ended up as a jarring Brechtian alienation film has the strikingly opposite effect: one of familiarization, of humanization, of transfer. Viewers may eat out of Petzold’s hand even if one can’t quite explain how he pulls it off (a similar magic trick he managed in Phoenix). Referencing Theodor W. Adorno’s notes on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel at Berlinale, he stresses how he didn’t want to have a “re-enactment” but a “present commentary on the past.” Petzold gives an example: the German Basic Law’s right to asylum originates from what is described in Transit. In addition, Beer has elaborated how, for her, the “historic material in the present-day created an in-between level of more general commentary on flight and migration.” And Rogowski conjured up Petzold’s preoccupation with ghosts (see his “Gespenster” trilogy), as characters appear to have fallen out of time.
I had to get used to Beer nervously hopping through Marseille as Marie (looking for her lost husband). During her later scenes with the two men in her life, she maximises that special, strong-yet-sensitive ambiguity that marked a similar role in François Ozon’s Frantz. No wonder every man she passes falls in love with her and wants to save her. (The role was intended for Nina Hoss, who certainly would have done it justice, but I have absolutely no complaints about Beer).
Georg goes from a fairly unlikeable and cynical opportunist (trying to survive like everyone else) to a cautiously caring and increasingly connected character in a community of desperate refugees. He could be every man or no man, as viewers learn little about him. Every minute of the film, Rogowski earns his European Shooting Star 2018 honour with a quiet intensity that gets right under your skin.
Cinematographer Hans Fromm has remarked how Marseille is a rewarding backdrop for a cinematographer, and he makes the most out of this lush and sweltering setting, with the Mediterranean tonality of recurring yellows, blues and greens harkening back to his technicolor GDR in Barbara.
There are a number of assured stand-out scenes of breathtaking beauty: Georg spending a night with a dead passenger on a freight train while the blue tracks zoom by like in an electronica music video; the philosophical exchanges about writing, leaving and loving with various consuls issuing (or perhaps not) the necessary visas; an initially down-trodden Georg playing soccer (Petzold the fan admits to sneaking as much soccer as possible into his films) with the little boy Driss he quickly comes to care for. The most outstanding scene, a tender moment of vulnerability and bonding, is Georg recalling and tentatively singing a childhood song to Driss and his deaf (North African migrant) mother.
The irony of trying to obtain a visa to the USA as a safe haven isn’t lost on European audiences, and the “cleansing operations” reminded many Berlinale audience members about news footage from last year’s ICE raids in California. Again, the in-betweenness of places and time.
When Petzold was asked how political his film is meant to be, Rogowski jumped in at the Berlinale press conference: “You can read it how you want, but you can be sure Christian always has something in the back of his mind.” Everyone is from somewhere else, everyone is in transit, waiting for someone else to decide their fate. The full human cast of cowards, profiteers, victims, perpetrators, friends, heroes and lovers is on display in Transit, as is a full range of emotion.
Shame. Survival. The choices we make. Love. Loyalty. Trust. Responsibility. Petzold, like Seghers in her much praised classic, plumbs the depth of the human condition. While Petzold’s film is fairly close to the novel — including his first narrator’s voice-over — the director explained how he didn’t adapt the book so much as showcase his enjoyment of the book: “We’re dealing with the transmission of oral history, and I chose a third person narrator over the first person narrator.”
As tough as Transit’s context and subject matter may be, glimpses of the characters’ relationships are uplifting. For those who didn’t think Petzold could improve after Phoenix, you might have to reconsider after experiencing Transit.
Jutta Brendemuhl (@JuttaBrendemuhl) is an arts writer and programmer (among others) for the Goethe-Institut and the European Union Film Festival Toronto. Jutta has worked with Bernardo Bertolucci, Wim Wenders, Robert Rauschenberg, Pina Bausch and other luminaries. When she isn’t sitting in an arthouse cinema in Berlin or Toronto, she might be watching old Die Hard DVDs in her living room. Her writing has appeared in POV, ScreenPrism, DIE ZEIT, German Film @ Canada blog and she’s indexed on IMDB. Jutta holds a master’s degree in English Literature and is a fellow of the Toronto Cultural Leaders Lab.