The cinema of German auteur Christian Petzold is populated with ghosts, from his Ghosts trilogy that spans The State I Am In, Ghosts and Yella to his more recent historical films, like Barbara and Phoenix, where people are never what they seem and the past and present feel like they exist almost simultaneously because the issues that the characters in the past struggle with resonate so clearly in the world we live in today.
His latest film, Transit, takes this idea one step further, with Petzold taking the story of the eponymous Anna Seghers novel written and set in 1942 zone libre Marseille but telling it against the backdrop of the city’s contemporary counterpart. It’s an intellectual gamble that underlines how little has changed for refugees in the last 75 years but also an artistic choice that will limit the film’s commercial prospects, as its intentional temporal dissonance between its story and its setting won’t fly with audiences used to more traditional narratives. The fact Petzold is interested in exploring a state of transit and almost static in-betweenness, rather than tell a story with a strong narrative thrust, will also appeal mainly to the higher end of the art house segment.
The pic’s main character is Georg (Franz Rogowski), a German refugee who has come into the possession of the papers of a novelist, Weidel, who killed himself in a French hotel. Like the dead man, Georg, who looks like Joaquin Phoenix’s Teutonic cousin, is fleeing from the German troops who have already invaded France but haven’t moved past Lyon yet. In Marseille, the Mediterranean port city, everyone tries to get their paperwork and transit visas in order so they can leave on the next ship to the New World (this is where some Millennial viewers might go: If it is set in the present, why don’t they get out their iPhone and book a plane?). The bitter irony of the situation is that only those who can prove they can leave are allowed to stay in the city’s crummy seaside hotels, because without a guarantee that they’ll soon leave, they’ll be considered illegal new arrivals with no further destination.
By accident, Georg is considered to be Weidel when he brings backs the dead man’s transit permits to the Mexican consulate but assuming this new identity finally makes sense, as it might offer a way out of Georg’s own situation, which seems unclear. But ghosts from Weidel’s past roam the streets of Marseille, including Marie (Paula Beer), his wife, who abandoned him and has now taken up with a doctor (Godehard Giese), who is also a refugee. The duo wants their own passage out of France to the Americas before the Germans reach Marseille, too. But now it appears her husband might be back in town with their paperwork for Mexico, and Marie feels like she needs to close a chapter before starting a new one.
The above description makes the film sound more narrative-driven than it really is, as characters take on new identities, appear like ghosts from the past or the future and Petzold and editor Bettina Boehler only very slowly connect the dots between the various scenes for those who haven’t read the novel. This is entirely by design. Transit, as the title suggests, is about the state of being neither here nor there, not arrived and not yet leaving. In what’s perhaps a very theoretical sleight-of-hand, Petzold equates this condition with nothing less than storytelling itself, with each face of each refugee having its own story, each person its own past, much of which will remain unknown to almost everyone around them. In this constellation, a remembered childhood song can suddenly turn a possibly threatening adult into a warm and loving creature. But beyond these gut feelings, we continue to know very little about them.
There is no denying that, initially, Transit’s story might feel excessively oblique. But as the film slowly puts its formalistic and thematic cards on the table, it becomes clear that its storytelling technique is really just a reflection of its core themes. To further underline the importance of stories, a Weidel manuscript is an important prop and the film itself has a narrator (Matthias Brandt) who, in a late scene, turns out to be a character in the story, too, suggesting that even this apparently dispassionate, omniscient voice has its own hidden stories we’ll never know.
Intense and mesmerizing German up-and-comer Rogowski is perfectly cast as Georg, who is enigmatic and fascinating in equal measure. Though second-billed, Beer doesn’t really appear until the film’s second half and even then, her character seems to be observed from the outside. A little more time with her character and backstory would have been beneficial, especially because she’s one half of at least three possible romances, and a lot of the pic’s only hinted-at subplots hinge on her. The awesomely named Lilien Batman plays a small but crucial role as a soccer-fanatic child who is befriended by Georg in the film’s most beguiling moments.
Cinematographer Hans Fromm, production designer K.D. Gruber, both Petzold regulars, and costume designer Katharina Ost together create a world that is contemporary but with an edge of timeless. The costumes, for example, are all classic cuts that people still wear today, while the conservative color palette ranges from warm yellow sunlight to the rich browns of stained walls and the bronzed faces of the people of the Mediterranean. At the very least, viewers untrained in narrative art house acrobatics will find what they are looking at spectacular.
Production companies: Schramm Film, Neon Productions, ZDF, Arte, Arte France Cinema
Cast: Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Lilien Batman, Maryam Zaree, Barbara Auer, Matthias Brandt, Sebastian Huelk, Emilie de Preissac
Writer-director: Christian Petzold, based on the novel by Anna Seghers
Producers: Florian Koerner vo, Gustorf, Michael Weber
Director of photography: Hans Fromm
Production designer: K.D. Gruber
Costume designer: Katharina Ost
Editor: Bettina Boehler
Music: Stefan Will
Casting: Simone Baer, Joanna Delon
Sales: The Match Factory
In German and French