Transit A Mixed Bag Backdoor Reflection on Refugee Crisis

Transit (2019)
Directed by Christian Petzold
Music Box Films, 102 minutes, Not-rated
In German with English subtitles
* * ½

Transit is a film that encourages reviewers to over intellectualize. But if one layers metaphors atop assumptions, do we miss the forest for the trees? Transit has been well received by pedantic critics but largely ignored by audiences, even those in art film venues. That’s because it because it’s a mess of a film–an interesting mess, but a mess all the same.

Director Christian Petzold based his film upon Anna Segher’s eponymous novel. Segher published her work in 1944 and set it in 1942. During World War II the Vichy government of France cooperated with the Nazis in rounding up known Jews and Jewish refugees passing through southern France. Petzold does something a bit different. He updates the timeframe to one that’s either the present or the near future and presents Western Europe as once again under authoritarian rule. This time there's a twist.

Petzold’s intent seems so obvious that it surprises me that so many reviewers missed the point. Transit centers on a German man, Georg (Franz Rogowski), and the attempt of he and his friends to get out of Europe before authorities apprehend them. They make it as far as Paris before Georg’s best friend is killed, but Georg escapes and travels on to Marseilles. He has managed to acquire the ID of a famed writer named Weidel and hopes to parlay the author’s reputation into passage to a safe nation such as Mexico or Venezuela before Weidel's death is discovered.

Several things should tip you off. First, Georg is German. If you follow the news you know that Germany has been one of the most generous nations in accepting refugees, but that its hospitality has led to a resurgence of the far right. Second, there is no mention of the religious or political backgrounds of those fleeing, hence no reason to assume Georg is Jewish; in fact, we infer that Georg's German ethnicity is the real issue. Third, the migrants seek refuge in nations that currently individuals emigrate from not to. In other words, Transit is a turn-the-tables commentary on contemporary immigration. How does today's refugee crisis look if we replace fleeing North Africans or Venezuelans, for example, and replace them with Germans? What would it be like if white Americans suddenly bolted to "freer" lands such as Mexico or Somalia?

Petzold oversteps by being too beholden to the film’s literary inspiration. This means that Georg must become smitten with Weidel’s widow, Marie (Paula Beer), who doesn’t know her husband is dead. She is both beautiful and mysterious, a woman who takes lovers and we don’t know if it’s because the couple is estranged, if they have an open relationship, if she’s amoral, or if she’s just not what she appears to be. In Marseilles she searches for her husband and keeps missing him in the various consulates she visits. (That is, of course, because Georg has his identity card and transit letters.) Yet she’s both attracted to Georg and is also having an affair with Richard (Godehard Giese), a doctor who is also trying to get out of France but won’t leave without Marie.

The port city of Marseilles is central to the plot. Transit hubs often operate in the gray zones of officialdom–think Michael Curtiz’s 1942 masterpiece Casablanca. Marseilles was like Casablanca both during World War II and today. It is France’s most multicultural city, but some view it as seedy and dangerous. In the film (and now) Marseilles is a point of entry for both legal and illegal immigrants. As in Casablanca, leaving requires securing various documents, letters, stamps, and approvals. The labyrinthine process of shuttling from one place to the next invites comparisons to Kafka, as well as stretched metaphors of migrants being suspended between Heaven and Hell. In Transit we observe a network of cafes, dodgy hotels, safe houses, and bars that cater to those awaiting transit or simply living underground. Who, if anyone, can be trusted?

Beer is superb as the enigmatic Marie. Her face is lovely, but it’s also a blank canvas that invites us to paint upon it what we wish to see. Rogoski is also riveting as Georg, who is lost in just about every way an individual can be lost. Nonetheless Transit ultimately works better as an intellectual exercise than as a film. Its narrative is so loose that it’s often like a series of snipped-thread vignettes. Though I seldom say this, Transit would have been better had it been more explicit in its intent.  

I’m not surprised that reviewers have read other things into it, but Transit is really about today’s refugee crisis. The sort of existential crises that occupied Kafka are not those that concern those on the razor’s edge of survival. If you will, the question that Petzold never asked is how many filmgoers have read Kafka. I have, but I doubt that’s typical. I’m not suggesting that Petzold should have dumbed down his film, but I do find it problematic when the main point is so muddle that reviewers instead pile metaphors atop assumptions.

Rob Weir

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