Christian Petzold’s Transit feels both timely and timeless. Adapted from Anna Seghers’ novel, the film is set in a world that blends present and past. The characters exist in a state of limbo, but their struggle feels even more pertinent now than the World War II era setting of Seghers’ text.
Georg (Franz Rogowski) is a German refugee who escapes to Marseille after fascists take control of Paris. In his possession is the latest manuscript of a recently deceased author named Weidl and a letter from the writer’s wife Marie (Paula Beer). Initially planning to hand the manuscript over to the Mexican embassy, he soon discovers that Weidl had secured a transit pass for himself and his wife to flee the war in Europe for asylum in Mexico. Assuming the dead man’s identity, Georg’s sense of urgency to leave the country subsides as he becomes more fascinated with figuring out who Marie is.
As Georg and the dead man’s wife repeatedly cross paths, while she searches for Weidl, George finds himself bonding with a several individuals, including Driss (Lilien Batman) and his mother Melissa (Maryam Zaree), who are also stuck in Marseille awaiting transit to a better life.
Petzold’s film lives in a constant state of unease. One of the most powerful aspects about the film is the sense of guilt that many of the characters feel for simply surviving the day as other refugees get hauled off by authorities. This shame is also evident in the relationships, both romantic and platonic, that are formed between the characters. Take Marie for example who finds herself in a quasi-triangle with Georg and a doctor named Richard (Godehard Giese), while still in love with a husband who she initially walked out on.
Offering a unique perspective on the refugee experience, Petzold effectively puts us in the shoes of individuals who are often invisible in plain sight to most of society. People without a country who are subjected to extortion and hardship by those willing to take advantage of their dire situation. By taking away the privilege of skin colour, as the white refugees do not fair much better than the individuals of colour, the film carries universal appeal while simultaneously commenting on the dark path that the anti-immigrant sentiment is sending Europe down.
The film’s leisurely pacing almost makes us forget about the persistent danger that lurks everywhere from train yards to motels. Placing us in the same state of limbo as the characters, Transit is a mesmerizing film that lingers in our mind long after the film ends.