In ways complex, subtle and surreal, Christian Petzold has crafted another enthralling think-piece / thriller with Transit. When troubled opportunist Georg (Franz Rogowski) agrees to deliver papers to a writer looking to flee the fascist take-over of France and quickly finds the writer has committed suicide, a sea of events take place leading Georg to Marseilles where he becomes entangled in the stories of a multitude of refugees, including the dead writer’s wife, Marie (Paula Beer), who knows not her husband is dead and has fallen into the arms of an altruistic doctor (Godeheard Giese) who passed up a passage to Mexico to stay with her while she still pines for her husband to join her.
While this bizarre love triangle (or is it a square?) built upon stolen identities and pining for those already passed on (both literally and metaphorically) is enthralling enough on its own, Petzold layers in side stories to enrich Georg’s tale. When he first arrives in Marseilles from Paris, he has to deliver bad news to the wife and young son of his traveling companion who died in transit, and he quickly becomes immersed in their loneliness. The woman (now widowed) is mute and deaf, and the boy (now orphaned) is just looking for someone to play soccer with, and both had been waiting in Marseilles for the boy’s father who was to help them all flee to the mountains. Meanwhile Georg gets distracted by his own conflicting drives to flee and stay. His feelings for the boy (who has an asthma attack after Georg takes him to an amusement park) are what lead him to the doctor and Marie, and when he falls for Marie, too, his feelings and anguish only become more twisted. Meanwhile other refugees come and go from his stage (a sickly conductor, an architect stuck with her client’s abandoned dogs), all longing for someone to listen to their story, just as Georg ends up telling his story to the proprietor of the restaurant where he, Marie, and the doctor frequent.
Based on a novel by Anna Seghers, whose original context for the story was Nazi-occupied France, Petzold makes a bold choice in assigning no definitive time period to the story…it could’ve been told then…it’s certainly potent now. Marseilles becomes a timeless purgatory (or is it hell?) where transient souls seek passage to their next port…the foghorns of ships signaling to all trapped there, “You could be next.” This surreal, often uncanny, take on the story allows Petzold to insert some Kafkaesque visuals where artistic images of ships sinking or being tossed about violent seas play on the big-screen in the waiting room of a consulate where people come every day to navigate the surging bureaucracy in hopes of getting their visas and transit papers. Meanwhile, dialogue pondering who is the first to forget, the one to leave or the one who was left behind, loops into the narrative as a taunt to all those who have been on both sides. In this hell, the refugees can still imagine, and maybe even briefly conjure, love, but it’s the oppressive feelings of shame, guilt, and longing…why didn’t we do more when they came for our neighbors…why didn’t we hold onto our loved ones just a little longer…why did we leave…why didn’t we go...that fuel their convoluted motives to wait…or go.
My wife and I joked that you need multiple advanced degrees to unpack all the layers of a Petzold film, perhaps in comparative literature, history, and film. But Petzold’s studiousness doesn’t detract from enjoying his films, if anything, it makes them richer and harder to forget. We also cast an American remake. Joaquin Phoenix would play Georg. Brie Larsen could be Marie. Perhaps a Bradley Cooper as the doctor? And the setting would change to California…or Texas…somewhere at the Mexican border…or perhaps in a bolder, more romantic move Marseille could be replaced with New Orleans? My wife insisted Alfonso Cuaron direct, but I thought first of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (whose Biutiful this film shares many layers and themes). And as great as those hypothetical remakes could actually be…they would probably pale in comparison to this. Transit is that good.