German director Christian Petzold takes a WW2 wartime novel and sets it down in the 21st century, at a time when the politics of the moment seem to be perfectly in tune. Transit, based on the 1944 novel by Anna Seghers, is a study of people on the outside of a society. They easily become refugees overnight simply because of the sweeping fascist regime in power around them. In the world of the film, I kept wondering what decade I was watching because of the aggressiveness of the police raids and harassment, and yet every time a smartphone appeared, I was jolted back into a frightening reality – that this is possible now. Right now. And may even be happening. The film asks the question: what would happen if France was suddenly under fascist occupation today, and everyone that was considered an ‘other’ would have to immediately surrender their right to live in the country?
Picture someone young, with their life ahead of them, running to escape the chaos of police raids that tear them away from friends they’ll never see again. Yet, by virtue of birth, a stolen passport and some travel documents (the “transit” of Transit), they could reinvent themselves on another continent. Transit opens in a quiet hustle: Two men in a French café, whispering in German, as one hands the other one some letters and leaves abruptly. Georg (Franz Rogowski), a man now hunted by the police, with nowhere to go, assumes the identity of another man, Weidel, a writer whose suicide leaves his wife Marie (Paula Beer) searching for him, unaware that he’s died. Georg falls for Marie as an object of fantasy, having read about her in Weidel’s letters, letters that keep him dreaming of a future outside his predicament.
Transit, on the whole, is filled with characters dreaming impossible dreams, and maybe that’s why they end up in the fray, making mistakes, circling back only to find that what they once cherished, even their freedom, is gone. Rogowski as Georg is especially good when he’s on the move, the way his eyes shift from tenderness to hatred to passion and back again. Georg’s transient new life takes a mini-tour across eclectic neighbourhoods from Paris to Marseille, meeting person after person by chance, in ways that never feel safe. When Georg finally makes contact with Marie, a strange immediacy seeps into the narration that’s hard to shake, and it shifts the tone to one of a ghost story.
As much as it’s part drama, part romance and a bit of a dark dream, Transit also leans into being a meditation, despite its austere perspective on the world. There’s a hint of faith in better (but not necessarily happy) days to come, but if you blink, you’ll miss it.
Transit is now playing at Cinéma du Parc.