Martin Eden is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and it got me thinking about one of the best movies I saw last year: Transit. Christian Petzold is one of those directors who has my number, and his latest, Undine, is currently playing at the Denver Film Festival. I’ll get to that one in a week or so [10.29 update: Here it is: “Seven shorts and a feature“], but today belongs to Transit, a movie that few saw when it came out. A pity. Maybe it will be discovered in the era of streaming. When I talked about it on After Image, I foolishly directed listeners to look for it on Amazon Prime. It turns out Transit is also available on Hoopla and Kanopy—both free via your local library. In that case, let us wait no longer. From Boulder Weekly Vol. 26, No. 33, “Once upon a time in war-torn Europe…”
Paris, modern-day: The cleanses are coming.
Staying one step ahead, the passenger (Franz Rogowski) flees Paris, stowing away on a train bound for Marseilles. There he picks up the name, “Georg.” Georg is known, even revered for his political writing, but he is no longer keen on the occupation. Now he is a refugee fleeing fascism and nothing more. His objective, like everyone trapped in this seaside purgatory: Secure a visa and transit papers. He needs both to make it out of Europe alive.
Georg meets a young African boy, Driss (Lilien Batman). They play soccer in the alley, and Driss opens up to the stranger. Georg takes a liking to the boy and follows him home to meet the mother. She is an illegal, as is the boy. As is Georg. As is practically everyone in Marseille. The streets are virtually deserted, filled not by the sounds of chattering crowds, but by police sirens and the heavy boots of oppression. They are constantly around the corner, down the hallway, or at the door. Who are “they?” It doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are in control, and you are not.
It’s not a pretty picture, but life is often ugly. So it was in the 1940s, and so it could be today as Christian Petzold shows in his latest film, Transit. Obscuring crucial details while using past tense voice-over narration to describe mundane information, Petzold crafts a Kafka-esque ghost story, one haunted by a woman who restlessly wanders in the background until her turn comes to stand in the spotlight. She is Marie (Paula Beers), and she is one of many either waiting for passage or for the hammer to come down. Whichever comes first.
Like Georg, these supporting players are stuck. Some try to break free, never letting go of hope. Others have given up completely; woodenly standing in place as they deliver their lines while Georg moves to help them. He might be able to save two, but he can’t save them all. Though he may be the hero of the piece, Georg is no savior.
Set in contemporary France, albeit an alternate reality, Transit’s roots stretch back to 1944—when German writer Anna Seghers penned the source novel. That, and a focus on letters of transit, might be why the movie is drawing comparisons to Casablanca. But Transit is no melodrama crafted on a Warner Bros. backlot. There are no sweeping romantics here, no swell of studio orchestras, and no Dooley Wilson twinkling away on an upright piano. Victor Lazlo is dead, Isla has forgotten Paris, Rick doesn’t have a café to hide in, and Captain Renault is just another bureaucrat with a stamp. It’s just Major Strasser and a lot of faces that wandered out of a Jean-Paul Sartre play.
And that, along with gorgeous cinematography from Hans Fromm, exquisite writing, and phenomenal performances, are more than enough reasons to see Transit. There will be plenty of other times for escapist entertainment, but not today. Today calls for Transit.