Wednesday 20 February 2019


Transit begins with two men in what turns out to be a French bistro, quietly discussing an escalating political situation that is threatening them. The enemy is approaching, about to turn their temporary home of Paris into another place where neither is welcome or safe anymore. Georg (Franz Rogowski), who will be our main character going forward, is tasked by his acquaintance to deliver two letters to a German poet who is hiding out in a hotel room. Immediately, Georg asks what he will receive in return, revealing something about himself and the times he lives in. 

On the surface, delivering the letters should be a simple task, but it turns out to be only the beginning of Georg's journey. At the hotel, he finds out that the poet has committed suicide, so he takes the remaining manuscript and the letters and leaves. The dangers hinted at in that first conversation come to pass, when he finds that the bistro he has just left before has been raided by police, leaving his companion and others in custody. So Georg's journey begins - fleeing Paris on a train with another man who is slowly dying from an infection, to Marseille, which remains for now an unoccupied city promising the hope of a port from which ships are still leaving. 

Because this whole time that Petzold has avoided obvious signifiers of a specific time period, but he also hasn't chosen to hide the fact that Transit is set in present-time Paris. There are no mobile phones, but the cars are decisively contemporary, as are the police uniforms. In spite of this, Transit is still the same story that is told in Anna Segher's novel Transit - written in 1944, set right before ships stopped leaving Marseille for safer shores. The ominous advancing forces threatening Georg are never really named - at one point, Georg explains that he was unable to finish his apprenticeship as a radio and television technician because of the "fascists", and that is as close as the film gets to specifying - but the historical background is still the same that it was in the story it was based on. The artists, writers, communists and Jewish people are fleeing. They are facing random police checks, informants, and a truly kafkaesque bureaucracy that despises refugees, and participates in a maze that deliberately makes it next to impossible to escape certain death. 
The effect that Petzold's choice to forego historical costumes and scenery has is potent. For one, the protective artificial distance disappears since we are seeing such a tale play out in a contemporary environment. It is no longer a question of "this could happen to us", but a successful demonstration that it has always been like that for those without majority protection, those trapped for some reason beyond their own control in the slow mills of the bureaucracy. All the figures that Georg stumbles across in Marseille - and they repeat themselves, as they are trapped together - are attempting to flee, and are getting caught up in the same machinery that will eventually condemn most of them to death, in spite of their efforts to escape. Death surrounds Georg almost immediately, when the first man who shares his story with him (as a port city, Marseille is a city of shared stories, Georg ponders) is struck down by what appears to be a heart attack. Another woman, a Jewish architect, is comically attempting to rescue the dogs of a friend along with her, finding it impossible to abandon the two creatures that she doesn't even love - except in the tragic end, once all other options are closed to her, the only thing left to do is to invite Georg out for a quiet meal in which they share no words, and then to fall to her death. 
It is an absurd tale, a twist on film noir. Unintentionally, because he is carrying the manuscript of the dead poet, he is confused for the man, and in spite of initially attempting to correct the error, he sees in it a possible way out of the closed city. As Weigel, he may be able to obtain the passage to Mexico that eludes all these other lost souls, if only he can keep the illusion alive long enough to get a transit visa through the United States. 

This second part of the film, where Georg wanders and somehow, miraculously, finds a way out among all these lost souls so desperate to leave, is narrated - another strange effect in a film that is already so ambitious. Rather than creating an artificial distance, it brings Georg closer, as the observed subject, but also as someone seen through the eyes of a stranger that doesn't exactly know everything, or much at all, about this person. We find out much later that the person who tells the story is a bartender, or perhaps the owner of the hotel, cleaning his glasses and listening to the tales of all the people attempting to travel through the port of Marseille. 

While this confusingly absurd way out opens up to Georg, he also befriends the son of the man who died sharing the same freight train with him. He uses the skills he was never allowed to perfect to repair a radio for him, in a scene that gently follows every single step that he meticulously takes. It becomes clear how much he cherishes this ability, and Driss, the child, begins to see him as a father figure, so much so that once Driss realises that Georg is plotting his own way out of Marseille, and has no intention to join him and his mother on their dangerous trek through the mountains, he feels utterly inconsolably betrayed. 

And so, because of how this whole world is set up for people like Georg and Driss, Transit also becomes a tale of betrayal. Georg cannot be a father for Driss, because he is pragmatically trying to find a way to escape, and he knows how doomed the trek across the mountains is, and how much more likely he is to succeed in this wondrous opportunity of assuming the identity of someone who was already almost out. He is betraying Marie (Paula Beer), a woman who begins as a mysterious character that keeps turning up everywhere Georg goes, sometimes approaching him as if she knows him only to shrink away from him in disappointment - because once they do meet, Georg realises that this is the poet's wife, who left Weigel, the eventual reason for his suicide. Instead of revealing the full extent of the truth - that every time one of the bureaucrats tells Marie that she has just missed her husband, they have actually dealt with Georg - he leaves her in the belief that her husband is alive, or at least doesn't tell her that he has assumed his identity. The absurdity of the confusion fits in perfectly with the absurdity of the situation, the endless lines of desperate people pleading to be able to leave, the empowered bureaucrats who decide over life and death. It's an absurdity that threatens to strip the characters of their agency but in the end, only serves to make their decisions more brave, especially between the moment where Georg quietly stands by along with all the other auberge guests while the police drag out a screaming mother by her legs, pondering how they are all quiet in their guilt over having this horrible fate pass them by, and the moment when he decides to give up the passage to Mexico that has fallen into his lap. 

The second central scene of the film is between Georg and someone at the American consulate who decides whether Georg can leave, because he can deny him the transit visa. Believing him to be Weigel, he tries to make sure that the poet will never write about his experiences with fascism in Europe, and Georg, clearly drawing from the very experience that made him decide to become  a technician rather than a writer in the first place explains that he always hated writing about his adventures in high school, that feeling like he was just living to write about things made him feel deeply uncomfortable. Georg's tale is brilliant, and the man across from him hears what he wants to hear (The poet calling his own profession "parasitic", a turn of phrase that is one of the few examples in the film that really gives a sense of the forces that are after Georg and everyone he encounters). But then, as he is leaving and when asked about what the last thing was that he wrote, Georg manages to perfectly recite a fragment of the poet's last work, a fragment that moved him deeply when he first encountered it but that then became somehow less potent once he found himself is a perpetual hell similar to the one the poet describes (A hell of waiting, eternally, for the horrors to begin, with no way of escaping). 

The story turns a bit once Georg falls for Marie, who is still, while looking for her lost husband, with her lover, a paediatrician who is also trying to obtain a passage across the sea. Georg has his hands on the very visa that will save Marie, but revealing that he possesses it would mean telling her clearly that he has been pretending to be her husband, that her husband is forever lost to her. Two people ask him the same riddle - if the one who left or the one who was left suffers longer from the loss - and the whole time, Georg holds the answer as he knows of the poet's fate, and of Marie's endless search to reconnect with him. 
In the end, he decides to sacrifice his passage - because he realises that she will never let go of the fantasy of her husband being alive, because she could not survive if she realised that he killed himself because of her leaving. Georg makes sure that both Marie and the doctor are on the ship, maybe in part to make up for his betrayal of Driss. Except because this is an absurd tale, his attempt to help fails utterly when he finds out that the ship has sunk. He cannot know if Marie ended up being on board, because like before he knew who she was, something is haunting him, just out of reach around corners - but we won't know if the thing that finds him in the end is Marie, or finally, the police.

2018, directed by Christian Petzold, starring Franz Rogowski, Paula Peer, Godehard Giese, Lilien Batman, Maryam Zaree, Barbara Auer, Matthias Brandt, Sebastian Hülk

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