You are under arrest from the moment Transit begins; this critic literally had to restart Christian Petzold’s original film to get his head round the film’s uniqueness. This is an adaptation of a novel by Anna Seghers published back in 1944, but the details are not in keeping with the book’s period; the sight and sound of modern ambulances and police vehicles interrupt the action, and the clothes seem deliberately chosen to not evoke any specific era.
In this German/French co-production, set in a parallel universe, the dialogue and the situations are set out in much more detail, and they relate as much to 2018 as 1944. The building of walls and the re-enforcing of borders has led to an inevitable conclusion; almost everyone caught up in this story is a refugee of some kind. Georg (Franz Rogowski) leaves Paris for Marseilles carrying the writings of a recently deceased author and a letter from the author’s wife; it allows him to pass himself off as the writer, and potentially access to a precious opportunity to flee the fascist occupation of his country and head to Mexico.
Georg is in transit, even if he’s temporarily stuck in the port while he works through various official channels. But his journey takes a diversion when he attempts to help a sick child, and becomes involved with the doctor who helps him, and a lover Marie (Paula Beer), who was previously married to the writer he’s impersonating. The situation is oppressive; there are, to paraphrase a line from Titanic, ‘too many people and not enough boats’; Georg must consider who will make it out of Marseilles alive, and what role he will play in the escape.
Transit is a powerful film that blazes a trail that puts most film-makers to shame. There’s a great throwaway line about a zombie movie where the undead congregate on a shopping mall; even the dead, one character comments, seem to have run out of ideas. Petzold’s distain for genre tropes is invigorating; he brings a classic text to life in a way that never puts it behind glass to admire. Instead he updates the sentiment in a way that focuses on the timeless personal suffering of the dispossessed; Transit captures where the political directions of 2019 were leading to, before the plague speeded up the pace of the unfolding car-crash of fascism.