Certain themes in human suffering are consistently repeated and seemingly unavoidable. Transit impeccably highlights the experiences of refugees by creating a world that is, sadly, timeless.
Adapted from a 1942 novel of the same name by Anna Seghers, Transit starts just as Paris is about to be closed to travel by the fascist forces occupying the city. Georg (Franz Rogowski) seems to be less interested in escaping the city than he is in keeping to himself, but certain odd jobs, hidden from the eyes of authorities, keep him partially invested in the occupation. For a small fee, he’s given some letters to deliver to a German writer hiding in a nearby hotel. When he arrives to find the writer no longer there, and his own family finally at risk, he’s left with no choice but to flee to Marseille. There, he should find the last port open to travel, as well as the wife of the writer who could greatly benefit from the letters he didn’t get to deliver.
If you’re picturing 1940s France in your head right now, director Christian Petzold has pulled a trick on you. Though it’s clearly reacting to the Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War, Transit never allows you to tuck this story safely into the annals of history. Through some very careful reveals and intentional manipulation of everything you see on screen, the film occupies both the past and the present. It’s of no specific time, and instead presents itself as it exists in all times. This allows the story to focus on human emotion and the experiences of trying to find peace and country through the web of bureaucracy and bullshit of arbitrary rules and borders.
At the core of this amorphous existence is Georg, trying to find what he wants. The writer’s wife, Marie (Paula Beer), might be someone who can bring him happiness, or at least affection, but she’s a complicated woman worthy of her own plot. The doctor in Marseille (Godehard Giese) is another man grappling with major decisions and paths of his life that are at once limited and limitless. Transit never treats any single character, not even the bartender, as window dressing for Georg’s story. Every person in this world has a life and concerns about the tumultuous times they’re living in.
Rogowski gives a restrained but clear performance as a character who could easily be misinterpreted. He’s a man of often hidden motives, and the way we see him on screen never leaves us wondering what’s happening behind his quiet façade. This is not an easy character through which to create a sympathetic audience, yet we do come to understand a bit of where Georg comes from.
In addition to its era-ambiguous visuals, the film’s cinematography is not afraid to linger on an image a touch longer than you might expect. Considering the snail’s pace of Georg obtaining his travel papers, this editorial contemplation reflects his own experiences in the new world. While the plot never drags or feels artificially drawn along, these occasional reminders of the lack of control we all have over the speed of life is an important lesson.
Transit might frustrate viewers who prefer clarity over ambiguity in their cinema. But for those who are interested in facing some of humanity’s darkness and don’t mind a little bit of artistic interpretation of history, it’s a devastating and human story to lose yourself in for a little while.