(Christian Petzold, Germany/France, 2018) 101 minutes


Director: Christian Petzold
Producers: Antonin Dedet,
  Florian Koerner von Gustorf
Screenplay: Christian Petzold
  based on the novel by Anna Seghers
Cinematography: Hans Fromm
Editor: Bettina Böhler
Music: Stefan Will
Franz Rogowski (Georg)
Paula Beer (Marie)
Godehard Giese (Richard)
Lilien Batman (Driss)
Maryam Zaree (Melissa)
Barbara Auer (Architect/Frau)
Matthias Brandt (Barmann/Erzähler)
Sebastian Hülk (Paul)

Reviews and notes

2018 Berlin, Hong Kong, Las Palmas, Buenos Aires, Sydney, Jerusalem, Wellington, Toronto, Vancouver, New York, Adelaide, Singapore
2019 Bengaluru (India)

In Petzold’s adaptation [of Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel]… a Jewish audio technician named Georg (Franz Rogowski) assumes the identity of a recently deceased communist author after accepting a job to deliver his personal effects to the Mexican Consulate in Marseille. Though still [referencing] World War II, Transit draws plain but potent parallels with the ongoing European refugee crises, not to mention the more unsettling rise of neo-Nazism. Armed with the dead author’s transit papers, Georg finds his escape plan getting complicated when he crosses paths (and slowly falls in love) with his surrogate’s widowed wife (Paula Beer, looking uncannily like the director’s longtime muse Nina Hoss), whose mysterious dealings lead him further into a web of false identities and unrequited romance. Shooting with customary economy, Petzold takes full advantage of the story’s genre machinations, chiseling the melodramatic gestures that punctuated his previous triumph, Phoenix, into a taut thriller whose incongruous narrative elements only accentuate the film’s timelessly tragic arc.
– Jordan Cronk, Film Comment.

From 2000's The State I Am In to 2014's Phoenix, Christian Petzold's films have all, after a fashion, explored the ways in which Germany's history haunts its present, at the same time testing the limits of art's ability to reconstruct the past. Transit takes these concerns to a logical conclusion of sorts. It is a cinematic double exposure in which past and present are combined to create a single image: a composite of images, ghost images and mirror images in which it's never quite clear what, exactly, we're seeing.

The film is based on a 1944 novel by the German-Jewish writer Anna Seghers, drawing on her experience as a refugee. The novel is set in WWII France, and follows its hero – a young German man who has escaped the camps – from Paris to Marseille, just before the Nazi occupation of the South of France. In Petzold's film, we first see Georg (Franz Rogowski) in a Paris cafe, where he is approached by a friend and asked to deliver two letters to a writer named Weidel. But Georg arrives at Weidel's hotel only to find him dead, having slashed his wrists. Georg takes the letters and Weidel's manuscript and flees for Marseille, where he poses as the writer in the hope of using his transit papers to escape to Mexico.

Transit's Marseille is a liminal place, a port town haunted by tired, increasingly desperate souls, each of them with their story to tell. It has the noir-ish feel of Michael Curtiz's Casablanca or Pepe le Moko's Algiers. Rogowski has the hangdog look of Bogart or Gabin, but he is younger and, with his cleft palate and childish demeanour, more reminiscent of Joaquin Phoenix, albeit leaner and lighter on his feet. Paula Beer, meanwhile, plays Weidel's wife Marie. She is looking for her husband, who she believes is still alive and in possession of her exit papers. Beer bears a striking resemblance to Petzold's muse Nina Hoss, but she too is younger, more delicate of feature. Both Rogowski and Beer are strange facsimiles of the stars they resemble, waxwork versions. There is something not quite real about them.

But there is something uncanny about Transit as a whole – not least because the version of WWII France we see here appears to be taking place in the present, or something that looks like it. The cars and architecture are all very clearly contemporary, and the police wear riot gear and carry machine guns. And yet Weidel uses a typewriter, telephones are wired in, and the protagonists – all dressed in modern-day versions of 19405 clothing – can only escape by crossing the Pyrenees or taking a ship. The disorienting effect is redoubled by the crisp high-resolution imagery shot on digital by Petzold's regular DP Hans Fromm, and by the appearance of several North African characters. Is this a transposition of history to the present? An allegory for a contemporary Europe swerving once more towards the far right? That's one way of seeing it. But references to specific historical events such as the Nazis interning French nationals in Paris's Velodrome d'Hiver belie such straightforward readings.

The Vel d'Hiv horror was recreated in minute detail in Roselyn Bosch's The Round Up (2010), most impressively in a vertiginous crane shot of the stadium that allowed a nauseating overview of the scale of the tragedy (and of the production). It's precisely such staging of history that Petzold seemingly seeks to avoid here. His story is told in voiceover by an unnamed character, who could be the narrator of Seghers's novel, or perhaps Weidel, or even the briefly glimpsed bartender in the brasserie that Georg and Marie frequent. Whoever he is, this narrator is not reliable. Time and again the image contradicts his voiceover, or at least fails to reflect it. We are told, for example, that at their first meeting Georg and Marie kissed and embraced, but there's no visual evidence of this. Perhaps it happened off screen. Perhaps it didn't happen at all. Not all the messy little details of life fit neatly into a narrative. We never learn, among other things, why Marie not once but twice mistakes Georg for Weidel, when there's no other suggestion that the two men resemble each other.

In Phoenix, a woman assumes the identity of a man's dead wife — the twist being that she is in fact the dead wife but he can't recognise her. Here, a man assumes the identity of a widow's dead husband, and she keeps mistaking him for the missing man. Identity, recognition, disavowal. These are the themes that percolate through Petzold's oblique stories. But after a while, the categories of living and dead cease even to make sense. One character tells an anecdote about a man waiting to register in hell, only to find that the wait itself is hell. Transit's Marseille — half empty, unlovely — is a kind of purgatory, soundtracked by the eerie sound of the mistral. Certainly, no one gets out of there alive, as the closing refrain of Talking Heads' Road to Nowhere makes pointedly clear. Are we meant to recognise ourselves in Transit's WWII story? Who knows. Perhaps the only thing that is clear in Petzold's cinema: history is never done with us.
- Catherine Wheatley, Sight and Sound, September 2019.

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