REVIEW: Transit [2018]

Rating: 9 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 101 minutes
    Release Date: April 5th, 2018 (Germany)
    Studio: Piffl Medien / Music Box Films
    Director(s): Christian Petzold
    Writer(s): Christian Petzold / Anna Seghers (novel)

I won’t be writing anymore school essays.

It took until the end of Christian Petzold‘s Transit and my reading the press notes to realize Georg’s (Franz Rogowski) story unfolded in the present day. I felt off-balance from the start as far as what the historical context for these events were because he was a German man in France fleeing an impending fascist force, hopeful of escaping somewhere outside of its reach. Was he Jewish? It’s never said. Is this the lead-up to World War II? Aesthetics, architecture, and cellphones prove it’s not. But here’s the thing: nothing ever seemed out of place. That anyone would be running from a force of oppression that arrests “the other” simply because they want their home to remain theirs isn’t era specific. This is happening right now.

That realization was when I understood exposition wasn’t necessary. The why didn’t matter because I saw the earmarks of persecution and knew survival meant flight. That instinct is what rises to the top of the proceedings—his desperation to find sanctuary from a sentence handed down upon him despite no wrongdoing. We therefore align with his plight and quickly find ourselves in his corner. So when he acquires information about a writer that might be of value to those in a position to help him, things are looking up. If he can get to the port city of Marseille, Georg might be able to talk his way into a visa and transit papers to Mexico. It’s only because he’s not a criminal that this prospect becomes nearly impossible.

Escape is first delayed by his need to assist a badly injured friend (Ronald Kukulies‘ Heinz). Then come his feelings for a young refugee boy named Driss (Lilien Batman), someone who believed Georg would join him and his mother (Maryam Zaree‘s Melissa) as their heroic guide through the Pyrenees Mountains. Add the guilt of his unlikely good fortune—the aforementioned writer’s death leaves legitimate documents in his hands to affix his own photo and claim safe passage across the Atlantic—manifested through the unknowing widow (Paula Beer‘s Marie) who still searches Marseille for her husband’s arrival and you begin to see Georg’s conundrum. Having the means to save yourself oftentimes proves as much a curse as blessing since it doesn’t ensure the safety of the ones you love.

And so he moves forward, waiting until the day he can board that ship and leave this nightmare behind. Every step, however, turns heads his way. Why can he cut the American consulate’s line? Why is he so happy when everyone else is barely hanging on by a thread? Why was he in the right place at the right time to stumble onto papers and money that’s able to sustain him? The answer to all the above is of course because he’s probably a good person who deserves that luck and thus good enough to also know the responsibility that luck carries. Because once he starts to use his newfound means to help others, it’s not long before realizing that help is meaningless if he tells the truth.

Suddenly this port becomes like the one in the manuscript written by the man whose identity he has stolen. When a character asks where he must go to register for a journey to Hell, he’s told he’s already there. And isn’t that relatable? Petzold didn’t go to the 1940s (where Anna Seghers‘ source novel was set) to find the dystopian environment allowing for his own characters to exist in paranoid limbo because he could look out the window and see he was in that same hellish landscape right now with Nazis running amuck and innocent Mexicans, Syrians, etc. being persecuted for their ethnicity. It’s the perfect parallel because he can let someone who looks like him suffer the fate they’re so often enforcing upon those who don’t.

It’s a fate that gets a bit of a spin, though. Petzold isn’t interested in throwing the weight of the world on Georg’s shoulders and his strength to hold it because that turns him into a white savior—no matter how flawed—who swoops in to usher those less fortunate to their salvation. Instead the director transforms his lead into the ferryman of the dead, always present at others’ demise. Every kind thing he does leads to tragedy. Every selfless act (which of course is colored by selfishness considering how he positioned himself to be selfless) pushes others onto the path of an oncoming train while he laments only to discover himself saved. Unfortunately there is no relief in purgatory. To live is to watch the world suffer.

That’s the shame felt by those watching the fascists take acquaintances, friends, and family away. Transit is a manifestation of that humiliation with Georg standing in for our conscience. Does he physically throw anyone into the line of fire? No. But he also doesn’t do anything to stop them from walking in front of the gun themselves. His luck therefore allows him to meet people that may in fact be more deserving of good fortune. So perhaps their inevitable disappearances and deaths are actually preferred. Because if this is that midway point between existence and oblivion, wouldn’t that release be the goal? What would Mexico provide them anyway? Probably just a brief reprieve before fascism jumps borders yet again. After all, it is those who stay that remember.

If that sounds cryptic … good. There’s a lot of philosophizing at play to shroud the narrative in metaphor reaching far beyond a romance that can never be believable considering the circumstances of its origins. Do Georg and Marie have a connection? Yes. But it’s less in search of longevity and more comprised of reciprocal joy, relief, and promise for the future. Their actual love is reserved for those they cannot stop thinking about. To see the other is then to see him/herself as though in a mirror, forever coming together and pulling apart. The other must be visible to remember they’re visible too. It’s a conjoined relationship between past and present, one staying behind so the other can flourish. Without the latter, the former loses its purpose.

There’s a melancholic beauty to that reality and Petzold does a wonderful job putting its bittersweet poetry on-screen. He’s placed a German who’s lost out of time in the center of a situation his own people wrought. Georg is a man threatened because of what his nation did. He’s the Muslim lumped into the vehemence against ISIS. He’s the Mexican immigrant who’s seeking asylum that’s arrested because one person in thousands committed an unforgivable crime unrelated to him. And he will continue running because there’s nowhere safe to turn. Georg is only shown hospitality if he can prove he’ll soon leave. In a world where we say we want peace only to close our doors when the opportunity to act arrives, we become the monsters.

[1] Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski in TRANSIT. Courtesy of Music Box Films.
[2] Franz Rogowski and Cast in TRANSIT. Courtesy of Music Box Films.
[3] Franz Rogowski and Lilien Batman in TRANSIT. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

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