What an odd little film Transit (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, March 22) is. Based on Anna Segher’s 1944 novel of the same name, its director, Christian Petzold, has attempted — with mixed results — to transpose the novel’s World War II-specific plot to the 21st century.
Georg (Franz Rogowski) is a concentration camp escapee gone to ground in France, now apparently crushed beneath the boot heel of an authoritarian regime. Police vans roar through the streets with alarming frequency, while militarized raids to round up illegals, spies, and other ‘troublemakers’ have become a normal part of everyday life.
An opportunity to earn enough money for an exit visa arises when a fellow refugee asks Georg to deliver two letters on his behalf to a writer named Weidel. One of the letters is from Weidel’s wife; the other from the Mexican consulate informing him he’s been granted safe passage to North America.
Georg accepts the mission, but arrives too late: Weidel has committed suicide in his hotel room. Fleeing south with the late writer’s papers in hand, Georg heads for the Mexican embassy, befriends the son of a deceased comrade, and experiences a series of encounters with a mysterious woman (Never Look Away’s Paula Beer) who flits in and out of the story until her centrality to the film’s narrative becomes clearer.
A consulate official mistakes Georg for Weidel, offering him a chance to escape that doesn’t involve a dangerous trek across the Pyrenees. There’s a significant complication, though: the mystery woman turns out to be Weidel’s widow, and she’ll be expected to accompany Georg aboard ship. Even worse, she has no idea her husband is dead.
Much of Transit’s action takes place in the small café where its characters congregate — and where the proprietor serves double duty as the film’s all-seeing narrator. The café apparently serves great pizza: Petzold seems oddly intent on focusing on the ‘pie of the day’ sign that regularly adorns Georg’s table.
Shot in and around Marseilles, Transit makes no attempt to disguise the fact that it’s set in the present day. The vehicles we see are modern ones; the police wear the kind of over-the-top riot gear Parisians might see at a gilets jaunes protest. Several elements of contemporary life are missing, however: there are no computers, no cell phones, and no televisions — in fact, 1950s-vintage typewriters seem to be the most up-to-date communication devices available.
This allows Transit to maintain a level of suspense that would otherwise be absent in our totally wired digital age, but it also forces the audience to suspend belief in the film’s version of reality. There’s no suggestion that what we are shown exists in an alternate or parallel universe: it seems exactly like the present day, minus consumer electronics.
Though I haven’t read Segher’s novel, the brief precis provided by Wikipedia suggests it was informed by events the author witnessed during the Second World War: consequently, cognitive dissonance kicks in when we see thuggish French police rounding up helpless German refugees. Perhaps Petzold intended Transit as commentary on western society’s yawning indifference to the plight of the poor, tired, huddled masses of the present day, but it’s a jarring cinematic experience nonetheless.