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Reviewed by:
  • Transit by Christian Petzold
  • Nicholas K. Johnson
Transit (2018)
Directed by Christian Petzold
Distributed by Piffl Medien

Transit, an adaptation of Anna Seghers’s eponymous novel, tells the story of Georg (Franz Rogowski), a German refugee and former concentration camp prisoner on the run during the Nazi invasion of France. Georg has assumed the identity of a deceased left-wing writer, Franz Weidel, to secure “transit” visas that allow him safe passage through Spain and the United States to Mexico. In the course of his journey, he encounters Weidel’s widow, Marie (Paula Beer), and begins to navigate the dilemma of living under a false identity while trying to secure passage for her and her lover Richard (Goedehard Giese). Transit is the best depiction of the 1940s European refugee crisis since Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942). Following other recent German-language depictions of the Jewish refugee experience, such as the admirable Vor der Morgenröte (Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe, Schrader, 2016) and Nirgendwo in Afrika (Nowhere in Africa, Link, 2001), Transit stands out by its utter refusal to depict history in an “authentic” manner. Instead, it solely focuses on the impact of historical events on its characters, depicting the “big picture” rather than the details.

Petzold’s adaptation sets the tale in an alternate-reality Marseille in our present day, a daring experiment which pays off in spades. Nazi imagery is never directly shown in the film. There are no soldiers marching around in jackboots, no swastika flags, and no actual Nazi characters; instead, the French police fulfill this role. Transit portrays Nazism as a looming threat, akin to an impending storm that will engulf all those who have fled it. Eschewing historical sets, costumes, and props, with the exception of a few typewriters and 1940s-era passports and visas, the film takes place in an alternate version of our world without computers and cellphones. In a meta-nod to this uncanny world, Georg carries a typewritten manuscript found in the late Weidel’s hotel room. This manuscript, which the camera often lingers on and characters quote from throughout the film, is actually Anna Seghers’s novel. In essence, Georg is carrying around his own story without knowing it.

Transit epitomizes Robert Rosenstone’s category of films that use “history as experiment,” thus avoiding the tired criticism that historical films can never depict the past in a 100 percent detailed manner. It also manages to sidestep debates about the ethics of depicting the Holocaust on film. Its strength is depicting history by not explicitly depicting history. By setting the story in an alternate version of our own time, Transit is able to draw parallels with the current refugee crisis and place its characters in an uncanny, dreamlike world that is neither present nor past. Georg does not flee from the kepi-clad Vichy gendarmerie ala Rick in Casablanca, but rather from riot police with assault rifles and body armor. Although Transit makes an explicit political statement by drawing parallels with the 1940s refugee crisis and the one in our present time, both by its setting and by the North African migrant family which Georg befriends, it never veers into agitprop or employs on-the-nose, didactic scenes to make its argument obvious.

Transit is a radical departure from Petzold’s other historical films about those on society’s margins, Barbara (2012) and Phoenix (2014). While these earlier films are also film noir-esque love stories, they are set in the historical periods of 1980s East Germany and postwar Berlin, complete with accurate set design and costuming. Both are original screenplays, yet they share certain themes and elements with Anna Seghers’s novel, especially Barbara, in which the protagonist faces a similar dilemma to Georg’s towards the end of the movie. Transit distinguishes itself through its contemporary setting, political message, and the inclusion of a narrator. However, it maintains an overall cinematic style consistent with Petzold’s body of work. The love story, like the plot device of Phoenix, requires some [End Page 51] suspension of disbelief, but not so much that it undercuts the film’s power. By the end, the film transitions into a type...