German film, Transit, starring Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer, is now on MUBI, from the director of Barbara and Phoenix, Christian Petzold. The film forms part of what its director calls his “love in the time of oppressive systems trilogy.” Transit continues the themes of confused identities, love and betrayal in the midst of war that also pervades in Barbara and Phoenix.
Transit opens in Paris. A man named Georg is sat at a café counter when another man enters and asks why he is still in the city. They are both German and must flee the city before being found by the police. The unnamed man is a journalist, and in danger. He asks Georg to deliver two letters to a writer friend of his, named Weidel, in exchange for money.
Georg arrives too late at the hotel. Weidel has committed suicide. He leaves with Weidel’s manuscript, but on his way back, the café is being raided by police, and the journalist who gave him Weidel’s letters is being arrested. Georg runs away from the police, but back at the place he is staying, he is told he must flee to the south of France with a wounded friend Heinz.
They board a train, and on the long journey to the south, Georg reads Weidel’s novel and his two letters. One of the letters acknowledges Weidel’s visa to Mexico, while the other is from his wife, begging him to come join him in Marseille.
Once in Marseille, Georg is confused for Weidel and given his visa and ship passage for a transit to Mexico. Weidel’s wife, Marie, is also there. Georg soon falls for the allusive Marie, who waits for her husband to leave France.
Transit is based on a novel by Anna Seghers, written in 1942 during the Second World War, and published in 1944, about a man fleeing the Nazis. There is no Wehrmacht in Petzold’s film. The police officers and vehicles are all contemporary French police. It is, in fact, a period film without the appearance of one. Petzold has transposed Seghers’ story to contemporary France, without changing the story. This appears as a deliberate decision from the director as his previous film, Phoenix, was set in post-World War II Europe, and looked like it was taking place in late 1940s.
This overlapping of past and present in Transit is at first unsettling, but suggests how Seghers’s story isn’t confined to its time period and could in fact take place nowadays. The film shows how powerless individuals become in totalitarian dictatorships. In one sequence, Georg looks upon the faces of other bystanders as a woman and children are being dragged away by the police, and sees the shame in everyone’s faces in their inability to help in fear of being arrested themselves. Timelessness in this story is implied here, as if to say that past oppressive systems are always in danger of returning.
The film retains the story’s literary quality through the use of the voice-over narrator, whose identity isn’t revealed until very late in the film. The narrator describes every detail that appears on screen, as if Georg was following what the narrator says. As the narrating voice only starts once Georg is in the train to Marseille, there is a sense that this is the moment when he has lost control of the events that surrounds him.
Transit is haunting film whose story and mood will stay with you long after viewing it. The film is led by two great performances. Franz Rogowski as Georg must adopt different roles in this story of identities, becoming a father figure, a writer as Wiedel, and a lover to Marie. Paula Beer creates a mysterious and allusive Marie.