A Tyrant Spell Has Bound Me, and I Cannot, Cannot Go
2018 / Germany, France / 101 min. / Dir. by Christian Petzold / Opened in select cities on Mar. 1, 2019; locally on Mar. 22, 2019by:
Transit was released on Blu-ray from Music Box Films on July 9, 2019 and is also available for digital rent or purchase from major online platforms.
The first 10 minutes of writer-director Christian Petzold’s absorbing new drama, Transit, constitute some of the most deftly disorienting cinema of the year. The setting is Paris, currently under German occupation, where the viewer is introduced to a cagey man in his 30s, Georg (Franz Rogowski). He and his comrade Paul (Sebastian Hülk) are German, but also members of the underground resistance. Unlike Paul, who writes dissident literature, Georg is just a working man, an apprentice radio and TV technician whose training has been derailed by the war. Paul meets Georg at a bar and asks for a favor: Deliver a pair of letters to another German writer, Weidel, who is sympathetic to the cause and staying at a nearby hotel. There, Georg discovers to his shock that Weidel has recently committed suicide, and the man’s body has already been discreetly removed. There are other letters and a finished manuscript in the writer’s room, and the hotel manager offers the dead man’s effects to Georg with the foreshadowing query, “Would you like to take them?” Unfortunately, when Georg returns to Paul, he arrives just in time to witness his comrade’s arrest by the heavily militarized and presumably collaborationist Paris police.
Wait: Back up. The police officers are outfitted in contemporary tactical SWAT gear, complete with 21st-century body armor and assault rifles. What year is this? The vehicles on the streets and the police equipment – plus the odd CCTV camera and flat-screen television – suggest a present-day setting. However, the film’s production design otherwise appears to date the story’s events to the middle of the 20th century, at the latest. There are no smartphones and no computers, but rather an analog world of intrigue realized in handwritten letters, travel visas, and hotel registries. The characters speak in the vocabulary of Germany’s World War II conquests and pogroms: fascism, camps, cleansings. One character attests that the occupiers are targeting Jews, but there is no explicit mention of Nazis or the Third Reich. Meanwhile, some words – like “refugees” and “aliens” – resonate in a contemporary European and American context. Eventually an overt, in-universe reference to Dawn of the Dead (1978) is dropped into conversation. What sort of eccentric alternate reality is this?
Petzold’s brilliantly slippery screenplay is adapted from German-born writer Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel, Transit Visa, which is based in part on the author’s own experiences as a French émigré during the Nazi occupation. The filmmaker gives the novel’s events a nominal 21st-century gloss but preserves their historical resonance through the familiar language, situations, and atmosphere of countless World War II-set stories. In doing so, Petzold creates a tale that is not so much timeless as it is unstuck in time. Transit is a war story, but it is not about war per se. Rather, it is about the way that violence and tyranny dislocate everything: people, identities, priorities, relationships, and the illusory order of everyday life. At one point in the film, Georg quietly sings a bit of doggerel his mother once taught him, a nursery song about animals returning to their homes. In the context of this story, the tune feels at once wistful and bitter. All the film’s characters desperately want nothing more than to escape their homes, to flee to a less fearful and perilous life somewhere, anywhere else.
After nearly walking into the clutches of the Paris police, Georg evades capture, eventually returning to a resistance safehouse. It turns out that he already has an urgent assignment to carry out: He’s to clandestinely escort a gravely injured comrade, Heinz, back to the man’s wife and child in Marseilles via rail, concealed inside an empty cargo car. While en route, however, Heinz succumbs to his wounds and dies. This leaves Georg on his own in the sun-kissed South – where the German lines have not yet reached – with nothing but a rucksack containing Weidel’s letters and manuscript. It’s around this time that Petzold adds another layer of obfuscation: a voice-over narrator who identifies himself as the bartender (Mathhias Brandt) at the little café that Georg ends up frequenting. Georg’s tale thereby becomes an unreliable one, an anecdote recounted secondhand by the person who just happened to be the only friendly ear available at the time.
It seems that Weidel’s letters include strange, contradictory missives from the writer’s estranged wife, as well as correspondence from the Mexican government notifying him that his travel visa has been arranged. Georg also peruses the unpublished novel, a tale of flawed people scrabbling to survive in a time of conflict. Marseilles, as it happens, is filled with such souls, people seeking egress from France before the Germans reach the Mediterranean and the “cleansings” begin. Much to Georg’s annoyance, these fellow exiles are unfailingly compelled to share their stories with anyone who will listen. (That he does this very thing with the bartender seems lost on Georg.) There’s the anxious, perpetually clammy orchestra conductor in the white suit (Justus von Dohnányi) who claims that he has a new position waiting for him in Venezuela and explains the elaborate rules governing passport photos to Georg. There’s the poised and acerbic architect (Barbara Auer) who is resentfully wrangling the pedigreed dogs of her wealthy American employers – a married couple who have long since evacuated by plane.
Georg seems to run into these people – and other vaguely familiar faces – again and again around Marseilles. They’re all trapped in the same loop, shuffling back and forth between dingy hotel rooms, seaside cafés, and the Mexican and American consulates, hoping to secure ship’s passage out of France by any means necessary. There’s also a gorgeous mystery woman (Paula Beer), who shortly after Georg’s arrival in Marseilles runs up to him, touches his shoulder, and then withdraws in confusion – as though she mistakenly thought she recognized him. This occurs more than once, but the stranger’s beauty and the sheer oddness of these encounters render Georg mute with bewilderment.
When he eventually attempts to turn over Weidel’s effects to the Mexican consulate, Georg is mistaken for the writer, an error he quickly exploits to claim the visas and tickets meant for Weidel and his wife. It’s only then that Georg puts two and two together, realizing that the mystery woman – who previously rushed past him in the consulate’s overflowing lobby – is none other than Weidel’s wife, Marie. Until Georg’s ship leaves in three weeks’ time, avoiding the spouse of the man he’s impersonating seems like the prudent move.
However, Georg has other concerns weighing on him, namely Heinz’s deaf, North African widow, Melissa (Maryam Zaree), and young son, Driss (Lilien Batman). After delivering the unfortunate word of his comrade’s death, Georg strikes up a paternal friendship with Driss, fixing the boy’s malfunctioning radio and playing soccer with him in the courtyard of the family’s dusty housing block. Melissa is wary of Georg’s intentions, but when Driss’ asthma later takes a turn for the worse, Georg dutifully fetches a German doctor who is also idling in Marseilles. As it happens, the doctor, Richard (Godehard Giese), is seeking a way to smuggle his lover, Marie, out of France, but she remains convinced that her estranged husband will arrive in the city any day now and secure her visa from the Mexican consulate. Oh. Awkward.
Petzold – who previously directed the more traditionally pulpy World War II psychodrama Phoenix (2014) – sketches this tangled web of love, lust, duty, and mercenary self-interest with fantastic parsimony and precision. Transit’s modest 101-minute running time feels impossibly dense, not so much with words as with emotions, loyalties, and upheavals. Every character’s motives are at once plain as day and hopelessly muddled. Georg, Marie, and Richard are swept up in a ridiculous dance of faux-nobility and manipulation, where visas keep swapping hands and luggage keeps getting loaded and unloaded. Everyone is cynically using everyone else, yet under the looming jackboot of the setting’s “Papers, please” authoritarianism, genuine human passions seem sharper than ever. Indeed, Georg’s entire nightmarish situation often feels like a morass of absurd contradictions. When a hotel manager explains that he must pay for a week up front until he obtains proof that he has booked passage out of Marseilles, Georg’s exasperated response summarizes the film’s air of low-key, border-town madness: “I can only stay here if I can prove that I don’t want to stay?!”
Critics are often guilty of over-using the term “Kafka-esque,” but it’s an apt descriptor for the plight of Georg, Marie, Richard, and the rest of Marseilles’ lost souls. Trapped in a purgatory seemingly fashioned from the castoff fragments of a Graham Greene novel, they haunt a handful of locales, pacing in circles while the war closes in around them. The characters share pizza and wine at the narrator’s café so many times – Georg always sitting near the entrance, his back to the door – that these encounters start to blur together. Even after Georg meets Marie and they begin to fall in doomed love with one another, she remains somewhat inscrutable, a puzzle whose devotion alternates between sweet, affected, and pathological. What’s more, Georg sees her everywhere in Marseilles, and it’s ambiguous whether all these sightings are real. Even when she’s in his arms, she remains a willowy mirage, a fleeting touch on the shoulder.
Petzold’s control of character and mood is peerless, as are the dazzling efforts of his crew – particularly cinematographer Hans Fromm, whose sunbaked daytime exteriors possess a prosaic, holiday-snapshot prettiness that clashes pointedly with the approaching cloud of an autocratic crackdown. There’s a perversity in the way that life seems roll on for the locals in Marseilles, who continue to snack, shop, and stroll as though oblivious to (or completely on board with) the coming fascist occupation. As for any potential resistance, Petzold repeatedly emphasizes the way that tyranny ensures compliance through good old-fashioned fear. When a terrified woman is dragged screaming from Georg’s hotel by the authorities, he locks eyes with the architect across the hall, and they both look down at the floor in shame, secretly grateful they’re not the ones being disappeared into the night. Much like the fantastical, postmodern approach employed in Art Spiegelman’s acclaimed graphic novel Maus, the ambiguous, Bizarro-World War II setting of Transit allows for an evocative dread that transcends the particulars of any one historical conflict. The dehumanization and dislocation depicted in Petzold’s feature has happened before, it’s happening now, and it will inevitably happen again.
Transit has its share of noir elements – it bears some resemblance to Casablanca (1942) by way of Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jacques Audiard – but it is not a film characterized by clear-cut villains or stark moral depravity. The German occupiers are more of a faceless, oppressive presence than true antagonists, and even the story’s most unlikable characters, such as the smug American consul (Trystan Pütter), are painted in shades of gray. It's true that there are no innocents in this tale, except perhaps for poor little Driss, who latches onto Georg with a ferocity that is almost frightening. This of course means that the child’s betrayal is all the more blistering when he learns that his new friend is soon bound for Mexico. Georg’s already-insoluble dilemma is thus complicated by his various roles: surrogate father, stand-in husband, reluctant savior, craven con man. No matter his choices, someone is going to get hurt. Getting left behind is lonely as hell, but at least the wronged get sympathy – the “sad songs,” as the film puts it. The one doing the leaving gets contempt, and then gets forgotten.
The viewer never discovers what family or friends Georg left behind in Paris, because his old life no longer matters – it’s just abandoned luggage on a train platform. In this, Georg is quite dissimilar from the typical noir anti-hero, who is invariably harrowed by the demons of their past. Owing to the exigencies of life during wartime, Georg now finds himself fumbling his way through two half-lives, each one belonging to a different dead man. This, Petzold’s film posits, is the effect of tyranny on the margins, where the self is shed like a dried-out skin until there’s nothing left but a collection of impulses. There’s no going back, but there’s also no going forward, just endless waiting, punctuated by false starts and fleeting hopes. And so Georg sits in the café, sips wine, and waits for Marie, while the rumble of war gets louder day by day.