Christian Petzold has done something extraordinary with TRANSIT. Using the novel of the same name by Anna Seghers, he has taken the story of a young German fleeing the Nazis during World War II and transmuted it into a universal story of refugees. By removing the specifics and setting it in the first-world present, the plight of innocent people suddenly turned into criminals by a change in politics takes on an urgent immediacy.
Our anti-hero (think Humphrey Bogart in CASABLANCA, another film concerned with transit visas) is Georg (Franz Rogowski). In order to make a quick buck in uncertain times, the German refugee agrees to act as a courier to a dissident writer in Paris. The package contains a letter from the man’s wife in Marseille asking for him to meet with her, and the notice from Mexico that he is granted a transit visa to live there in order to escape the Fascists invading France. Unfortunately, when he arrives at the hotel, he finds that the writer has committed suicide, leaving the hotel owner, an order-loving young woman, to complain about the mess (literal and figurative) while also asserting that she is a true Frenchwoman because she is a sucker for romance.
On an impulse, Georg takes the dead man’s effect, including his last manuscript, the one his publisher found too controversial to publish in the current political climate. It’s the first step to a series of events that finds Georg himself in Marseille, taking on the dead man’s identity, and being haunted by the dead man’s very alive wife (Paula Beer), who doesn’t know that she’s a widow.
The portrait of a society that willingly acquiesces to being conquered by an invasion of fascists is chilling, especially when set in the very recognizable urban precincts of graffiti-covered walls. No official protests arbitrary rules that allow one person to board a ship to safety, while denying another, equally deserving soul the same deliverance. A scene showing a screaming woman being dragged from her hotel room as her fellow guests stand by in silence, expressions carefully neutral, sums it up with a devastating precision.
TRANSIT’s story of complicity and redemption is told in tones as quiet as those bystanders standing in their hotel’s corridor. And as powerful as that woman’s screams. The desperation of each individual’s story, and we learn many of them, becomes all the more tragic for the curious lifelessness with which some tell it, or the forced jocularity of others. In his own way, and completely unconsciously, Georg becomes the angel of death forced by circumstances beyond his control to be a macabre witness to a world gone mad. In this, Petzold has made an allegory that challenges the viewer to rethink what it means to be a displaced person, no matter what view he or she had going into the film.