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


Small Towns: West Stockbridge, MA

West Stockbridge, MA: In the Shadow of Hustle and Bustle

Welcome to a new blog feature I'm calling Small Towns. There are lots of out-of-the-way places in New England and, frankly, in many cases that's a good thing. Sometimes, though, there are small jewels deserving of your attention.

Let's kick things off with West Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I mean West Stockbridge, not its famed first cousin Stockbridge, which lies 4.5 miles away. That one was founded (by whites) in 1739 and West Stockbridge 27 years later. Lots of New England towns have cardinal direction namesakes that formed for various reasons, chief among them religious disputes and the fact that older settlements ran out of desirable land in a generation or two.

You can forget the history lesson and enjoy West Stockbridge for its main modern virtue. It's near Berkshires tourist magnets such as the Tanglewood Music Center, the Kripalu School of Yoga, Berkshires mansions and all the other summer noise.  Stockbridge is where the masses head to see sites such as the Norman Rockwell Museum, Naumkeag, and Chesterwood. Traffic can be bad there at any time of the year because of the way the roads are laid out, but bottlenecks, clueless driving, and long waits to dine on the porch of the Red Lion Inn are as much a part of a Stockbridge summertime as mosquitoes and New York license plates. West Stockbridge is a place to take things at a less hectic pace. You might even spot Bay State license plates there.

West Stockbridge–population 1,360–invites one to laze about. It's the first exit off the Mass Pike if you're traveling east from New York State, and a place where we like to stop to shake off the road miles when driving home from visiting Pennsylvania relatives. It has a compact downtown that features the work of local artisans, and there seem to be quite a few of them. If you'd rather have a retro experience, Charles H. Baldwin and Sons is equal parts country store and time warp. Unless you're there around the noon hour–when you might have to wait–check out No. Six Depot, a coffee shop, bakery, and gallery space tricked out inside the old railroad station. We've never been there at dinnertime, but Rouge Restaurant gets raves from those who've dined there.

Our favorite activity is simply meandering. We duck into the craft shops, peruse book selections, aimlessly wander, caffeinate and repeat until the brain fog lifts enough to tackle the remaining 75-minute drive home. The Williams River makes a picturesque tumble through the downtown, spilling down from a large pond just above the old Shaker Mill. There's a used bookstore in that building and fossicking for used and remaindered tomes is one of the joys of the town. You can find some of the latter plus new volumes at Shaker Mill Books, which is next door to the old mill. 

We've heard good things about TurnPark Art Space, which is built by an old quarry but we're saving that for the next time we're homeward bound from a long drive. After all, there's just so much not-much-of-anything a person can do in a few hours!         


Carlos Ruiz Zafon Book 2 : The Angel's Game

The Angel’s Game (2008)
By Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Doubleday, 544 pages
* * * ½

An old adage goes: be careful what you wish for, you might get it. The 10th Commandment admonishes against covetousness. More ominously, a considerable body of folklore tells of the eternal consequences of making a bargain with the Devil. (It’s numbers M200-299 in the Folk Motif Index if you’re keeping score.) From Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Life to Faust, Paganini, and Robert Johnson, the message is clear: don’t meddle with the Devil.

The Angel’s Game is Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s (semi) prequel to The Shadow of the Wind. It is not up to the first book’s standard and, in fact, might even be viewed as a messy sometimes-trite piece of work. It is nonetheless a thrilling, often scary read. Like Shadow of the Wind, this one is set in Barcelona, though slightly earlier: the 1920s and 1930s, the eve of the Spanish Civil War. Parts of it take place in the Sempere bookshop, though they involve Daniel Sempere the elder, not his son. (This detail has confused some readers.) The Cemetery of Forgotten Books also factors into the story. Of these, only the latter is important rather than coincidental, which means you need not read Shadow of the Wind first.

Great Expectations is a clear model for Angel’s Game. David Martin, like Pip, grew up in poverty and suffered the torments of an abusive father. Despite this, David’s natural intelligence, love of literature, and hard work lead him to publisher and surrogate father Pedro Vidal, for whose newspaper he gains modest employment. After a time, David harbors a desire for more things of this world: money, reputation, and residency in a rambling empty mansion called Tower House. He gets two of three; he leaves Vidal for greater opportunity, but is soon pumping out sensationalist stories under a pseudonym that captivate the reading public. He has money and a house with a spooky past, but he’s not viewed as a serious writer. Soon, David is both bored and tired of being looked down upon; he’s not even good enough to court Cristina, the daughter of Vidal’s chauffeur.

David’s life takes a turn when a French publisher named Andreas Cortelli offers David an enormous sum to be his ghostwriter. Cortelli is a stimulating intellect, though an odd individual who wears an angel pin in his lapel and has a habit of consulting with David at irregular hours in unusual places. His commission is stranger still; Cortelli wants David to write a book that will unseat old religious systems and establish a new one. Moreover, it must be such a powerful piece of propaganda that the masses will follow it.

All of this is overlaid by a chilling discovery David makes about the previous owner of his house, the disruption of an adoring but forceful live-in intern, a series of murders for which David is thought a suspect, increasing demands from Cortelli, and the shock of discovering that Christina has married his old benefactor, Vidal. As in Great Expectations, not everyone is whom they appear to be, Cortelli primary among them.

It does not surprise me that not all readers liked (or could follow) this book. It is not clear what we are to make of all this. Is Zafon’s novel a Gothic tale of the supernatural? A murder mystery? Is it an exercise in Jungian psychology? A tale of David’s breakdown? A vampire tale? An overdose of magical realism? Or something more ominous? Zafon does not tell us what is real and what is imagined, thus any one of these readings has merit, though I think he tips his hand by calling Cortelli’s scandalous tract Lux Aeterna (“Eternal Light”).   

I would yield to those who say that Zafon jumped the shark in Angel’s Game. There are too many elements, too many subplots, too many improbable circumstances, and too much ambiguity for the center to hold. Nonetheless, memorable lines such as this enthralled me: “Poetry is written with tears, fiction with blood, and history with invisible ink.” Part of the book, including its conclusion, scared the bejesus out of me. All I am sure of is that this book within a book is also an allegory on Francoism. As for the scariest thing of all, I will end with a prolonged quote from a lecture delivered to David by Cortelli. Zafon wrote these words in 2008, but I’ll excuse you if you thought it was last week.

Nothing makes us believe more than fear, the uncertainty of being threatened. When we feel like victims, all our actions and beliefs are legitimized, however questionable they may be. Our opponents… stop sharing common ground with us and become our enemies…. The envy, greed, or resentment that motivates us becomes sanctified, because we tell ourselves we’re acting in self-defense. Evil, menace–those are always the preserve of each other. The first step for believing passionately is fear. Fear of losing our identity, our life, our status, or our beliefs. Fear is the gunpowder and hatred is the fuse. … It’s not enough that people should believe. They must believe what we want them to believe. And they must not question it or listen to the voice of whoever questions it.

This would be a disturbing yet enlightening book if only for these passages. I’ll leave it to you whether the rest makes sense, just as I will allow you to apply Zafon’s words in an analogical context of choice. I will say, though, that you should exercise great caution before striking a bargain for all you think you desire.

Rob Weir