An Existential Noir Film
Christian Petzold’s existentialist noir “Transit” is one of the best films about World War II even if it hinges on a suspension of disbelief that’ll be too far a stretch for some. The film is based on the author’s experience while escaping Nazi Germany for France and later to Mexico. Petzold restages the story in a blatantly anachronistic setting, a kind of historical “netherverse” that straddles the line between past and present.
George Weidel (Franz Rogowosky), an author, commits suicide in a French hotel, while escorting a North African refugee with a festering leg infection to Marseilles, one of the last remaining neutral zones from which one can safely flee to the Americas. Georg, a technician, takes Weidel’s final manuscript with him. Georg is without papers and it has been implied that he’s Jewish.
The screenplay reorients fascism along economic rather than ethnic lines, with the relationship between the two all but implied. For these characters, the inevitable occupation is a well-established fact; the word “Nazi” is never said aloud here. Georg’s original intent was to return Weidel’s manuscript for a small sum of money, but an opportunity avails itself to assume his identity and thus escape, so Georg readily takes the chance. The process of getting his transit visa approved means staying in Africa until he received it.
Georg is a classic existentialist antihero who is repeatedly seen facing enclosed doorways yet unable to smoothly pass through an open one when he gets the chance. He strikes up a relationship with a beautiful, sultry woman named Marie (Paula Beers), who keeps running into him as if in a dream. It turns out that she’s Weidel’s wife, unaware that her late husband is never coming back. The relationship first develops in struck poses and lingering glances—the war has made both Georg and Marie phantoms of their past selves, and their attempt to fall in love is the backbone of the plot as is Georg’s relationship with Driss (Lilien Batman), the young son of the late fugitive whom he escorted back to Marseilles. Slowly, Marie and Georg (who now goes by George) are able to inch closer and closer to safe passage. The film’s strongest critique of the 21st century is that while democracies are eroded by xenophobia and plutocracy, a bourgeois lifestyle is one of the last holdouts for a troubled conscience—as long as you can afford it. As viewers, the film invites us to trace our own speculative connections between the narrative and the contemporary rise in neo-Nazism and anti-refugee sentiment.
Georg’s rucksack is filled with the personal effects of a stranger, a manuscript for a novel, two letters from his estranged wife Marie, along with documents guaranteeing the dead man a Mexican visa. Georg’s honest plan upon arriving in Marseille, where thousands of refugees like him await means of escape, is to hand in Weidel’s papers at the Mexican consulate, in the hope that they’ll somehow reach his unwitting widow. But when the consul mistakes Georg for Weidel himself, offering him imminent safe passage to Mexico, he hesitates before assuming the writer’s identity.
“Transit” then launches into a tangle of reversals and ironies. Marseille is a world of shabby 21st-century architecture. This could as easily be the past, as viewed through a hall of mirrors, or an apocalyptic near-future, positioning the events on screen either as recontextualized history or timely cautionary tale.
Rogowski is perfectly cast as Georg, who is enigmatic and fascinating in equal measure. Though second-billed, Beer doesn’t really appear until the film’s second half and even then, her character seems to be observed from the outside. A little more time with her character and backstory would have been beneficial, especially because as one half of at least three possible romances, a lot of the pic’s only hinted at subplots rest on her.