In Transit, Christian Petzold transposes a story of World War II refugees into a contemporary setting. By pulling off this feat, he confronts viewers with their complicity in the treatment of asylum seekers today.By Christos Tsiolkas.
Christian Petzold’s Transit is astounding. The film begins in a Paris recently occupied by German troops; Franz Rogowski plays Georg, a young German man who has escaped a concentration camp. He, like all those who are marked as undesirable by the Nazis, is desperate to flee the city. Suspicion and confusion colour every interaction, no matter how casual. Georg is part of an underground resistance group, and he is assigned a task to collect a left-wing writer, Weidel, and organise Weidel’s passage to Marseille. There, the writer will join the queue of desperate refugees trying to obtain transit passes to board the ships leaving the port. Without these passes they are condemned to an insufferable limbo, waiting to endure the inevitable persecution and slaughter from the encroaching Fascists. When Georg goes to Weidel’s hotel room he finds that the writer has taken his life, leaving behind his passport and transit pass, along with the final novel he was working on. Georg takes Weidel’s papers and manuscript. He makes his way to Marseille, where he will, by assuming the writer’s identity, try to obtain a berth on a departing ship.
There is hardly any exposition in these dynamic early scenes, and the direction is unfussed and restrained. Petzold keeps his camera focused tightly on Georg, and the sporadic flashes of violence and terror we see in the occupied city are all from his point of view. He is a man who has become adept at hiding and evasion, and so much of what we see is in ellipses or in the background. The effect is both tense and disorienting, making Georg’s fear and desperation visceral.
Transit has another element that confuses us as viewers. Though the narrative suggests we are in Europe during the early years of World War II, the streets and billboards and traffic belong to our contemporary world. This dislocation causes us to initially doubt the politics of the unfolding totalitarian danger. Is Georg fleeing the Nazis, or is he a white European suddenly and inexplicably forced into the same ignominy suffered by modern-day undocumented asylum seekers – always on the lookout for the police, living in seclusion and silence, with every waking moment ruled by the fear of coming in contact with the state? Petzold demands his audience understand that the condition of those without statehood – the sans papiers – is an outrage, whether in 1940 or in 2019.
There is a peril, of course, in the filmmakers’ deliberate conflation of the past and the present. In doing so, they might diminish the specific circumstances that are unique to the Holocaust, as well as those that pertain to the current European “migrant crisis”. The mirroring as allegory runs the significant risk of failing to do justice to either. But all of Petzold’s films that I have seen have impressed me by the profound moral intelligence he brings as a director and writer. He often worked with the late Marxist scholar and filmmaker Harun Farocki, who was his teacher at the Free University of Berlin, and he shares Farocki’s insistence on maintaining a critical position on the history and politics of the German state.
The allegorical framework of Transit never feels forced. The film achieves the remarkable feat of both persuading us of the reality of the refugees’ world, and at the same time demanding us to keep questioning the filmmakers’ choices. Petzold judiciously uses the editing not only to maintain the fluency of the unfolding action but also to challenge our orientation as viewers. He will return to a location we have seen earlier, and often through an identical framing or a series of cuts, but what we observe in the recurrence will include a jarring element that momentarily confuses us about temporal and historical space. The surprise of these recurrences is startling. We have been caught up in the drama of Georg’s life and are then shocked at our complicity in the violence happening in our own world. The term “Brechtian” is used with such lazy abandon in art criticism, increasingly referring to purely formal provocation, and so it is galvanising to see a work where Brechtian distancing has a lucid moral purpose.
I hasten to add that if such descriptions make Petzold’s film seem cerebral and alienating, this is very far from the case. One of the things that distinguish his films from other contemporary German directors is his obvious esteem for and engagement with classical film form. There has been a marked shift in Petzold’s work over the past few years, starting with 2012’s Barbara, which was about a dissident doctor in the former East Germany. Barbara and his subsequent film, Phoenix, which was set in Berlin immediately after World War II, indicated an increasing desire to focus on Germany’s past. Phoenix, in particular, was also indebted to the tropes of Hollywood melodrama. Transit indicates that this is a rewarding direction for Petzold to pursue. In many ways, the film can be seen as a loose reworking of one of the greatest Hollywood political melodramas, Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca.
Transit is based on Anna Seghers’ novel of the same name. Both the novel and Casablanca were completed in 1942, and both deal with asylum seekers pursuing visas to escape Fascism. It has been a long time since I read the novel but what remains vivid is Seghers’ descriptions of the refugees’ listlessness and hopelessness. Petzold’s adaptation wisely contrasts their dejection with more melodramatic elements. In Marseille, Georg becomes obsessed with Marie, Weidel’s wife, who remains ignorant of her husband’s death. Marie is a troubling role, a woman whose previous sexual duplicity is negated by the risks she will take to find her husband. Paula Beer works small miracles in this part, granting the almost ethereal and somewhat clichéd character a certain grit. The role deliberately echoes Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund in Casablanca, but Beer’s self-sacrifice has a sensual potency that is always exciting to watch. Georg’s desire for her makes perfect sense.
Georg also visits the wife and child of his friend Heinz and forms an attachment with Driss (Lilien Batman), Heinz’s young son. The scenes between Rogowski and Batman are probably the most tender in the film, and certainly the most joyous. But the pleasure we take in watching them form their tentative friendship is bittersweet. We know that Driss, as the son of Jewish refugees, is also in dire need of papers. We know too well the fate that awaits him.
Georg’s relationships with Marie, Driss and, to a lesser extent, Richard (Godehard Giese), Marie’s lover, and our wondering whether he will reveal his real identity to them, add narrative urgency to Transit. Yet Petzold remains faithful to the most moving element of Seghers’ novel: the anxious and humiliating waiting of the refugees. In small but significant roles, Barbara Auer and Matthias Brandt are excellent. They know that their desperation and ferocious will to survive make them seem ridiculous to the callous or distracted embassy bureaucrats issuing the transit visas. But Auer, in particular, refuses to sate any desire we might have for sentimentality. Her quiet fury punctures the neat conclusions demanded of melodrama.
In the novel, Georg’s character narrates the story. In the film, the voiceover comes from a minor character we glimpse only briefly. Again, this can be read as a nod to Casablanca, but in this instance the equivalent of Rick, the role played by Humphrey Bogart, is relegated to the edge of the frame. In Transit, the refugees are the centre of the movie. The Ricks of the world, who possess statehood and who have papers, can’t be reliable narrators of this story. But the voiceover is also teasingly suggestive of another movie, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle. That film too was set in a port city, and the world Fassbinder created was also deliberately artificial and theatrical.
Fassbinder and Petzold are wildly different filmmakers. Petzold’s strengths are his intellectual clarity, and the grace and fluidity of his directing. He’s arguably the far more technically accomplished filmmaker but I doubt he is capable of the eccentric flourishes of Fassbinder’s anarchism, and he certainly doesn’t indulge in any of Fassbinder’s cruel comedy. That may mark the generational difference between the two filmmakers. I always sensed in Fassbinder the fury and shame and betrayal he felt in being born to the generation that allowed the Nazis to come to power. But if Petzold’s films are less savage, he shares with Fassbinder the ceaseless need to interrogate German history, and an equal priority not to let the contemporary European off the hook. Both directors also share a love of melodrama and the conviction that the “woman’s film”, the “gangster film” and the “spy movie” can be more fertile genres for exploring culture and history than more arch or academic forms of political cinema. Fassbinder utilised these genres to make some of the most compelling and incisive political films of the 1970s, including what is now known as the BRD Trilogy – The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola and Veronika Voss – three films that excoriated the newly emerging West German state. I think these films masterworks. In comparing Petzold’s accomplishments in Barbara, Phoenix and now Transit to them, I hope I am making my admiration for Petzold clear. He is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.
The last shot of Transit is on Georg’s face. The scenes progress with such riveting and intelligent accumulation that it was only in that moment I realised what a brilliant performance Rogowski gives. His sensuality is quieter than Beer’s, but it has similar insistence. If he falls in love with Marie, we fall in love with him. But Petzold and Rogowski have too much integrity to give us a traditional hero. Georg is frightened and he is a liar. And Transit is too wise a film to make do with simplistic notions of wrong and right. In the atrocious world that it depicts, the clichés of heroism get stuck in our throat. The credits, too, deliver a final shock. The worlds of 1940 and 2019 blur. We are all complicit; those of us with papers and passports and safety don’t deserve to be let off the hook.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 13, 2019 as "Transition lens". Subscribe here.