Soon after German-Jewish expatriate writer Anna Seghers' Transit was published in 1944, the socialist-realist novel was compared to Casablanca--the Humphrey Bogart/Ingrid Bergman sensation that had won the Best Picture Oscar just a few months prior. Transit's 1940s story swirled around a protagonist buffeted by the misfortunes of his everyman-ness in the shadow of a rising tide of fascism. But three-quarters of a century later, German director Christian Petzold's much-anticipated adaptation of the Seghers novel can't be confused with a World War II-era movie filmed on the Warner Bros. backlot. Yes, Transit's set pieces, wardrobe and transit options (primarily rail or ship) are time-ambiguous, and there's not a cellphone in sight. But soon enough, viewers recognize a 21st-century France, where refugees are once again on the run and contemporary fascism has raised its hydra-like head(s).
"Historical silence is akin to windlessness of still air," Petzold said following his film's September 2018 premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. "The breeze ceases to propel the sailboat, which is enveloped by the vast nothingness of the sea. The passengers have been expunged—from history and from life. They're cornered in space and time."
Transit's "space" is Marseille, where electronics repairman Georg (Franz Rogowski) has mysteriously fled from Parisian authorities and assumed the identity of a dead writer whose transit papers he's carrying. Living in Marseille, among refugees from around the world, Georg falls for Marie (Paula Beer), an equally mysterious woman searching for her husband—the same man whose identity Georg has stolen. To that end, Transit creates a timeless exploration of the plight of displaced people.
In Marseille, Transit's plot thickens as Georg's attachment to Marie is paralleled by a more delicate relationship with a young boy (Lilien Batman) that Georg spots playing soccer in an alley. The story softens for a moment when Georg takes a liking to the boy and follows him home to meet his mother. But when Georg opens the door of the boy's home, Transit quickly hardens again as we witness two dozen North Africans, also refugees, squatting in the tiny apartment where they are hiding from authorities. Like nearly everyone else in Marseille, they, too, are in a seaside purgatory, waiting for either a visa and transit papers (legal or illegal), or the ever-looming possibility of incarceration and deportation.
"Before I began writing the script, I tried to imagine how depicting the movements of refugees in today's Marseille might look, without commenting on today's issues," said Petzold. "I was totally fine just imagining someone in a suit, carrying a duffel bag, walking along Marseille's harbor, booking a hotel room and saying, 'The fascists will be here in three days; I have to get out of here.'"
As contemporary as this new Transit is, it must be stressed that its modern telling is not terribly interested in being specific about current affairs. Yes, we continually hear about "the fascists" who are spread across France, hunting for the "illegal" refugees. But are these the echoes of fascism that swept France following terrorist attacks that nearly brought that nation to its knees in 2015? And are these the refugees that we continue to see fleeing Europe and Africa's current hotbeds of crisis? Leaving such questions unanswered, Petzold's adaptation of Transit is ultimately more existential than extant, more philosophical than pragmatic, in contrast to its 1944 source material. The characters of this Transit are cornered in Marseille, waiting for visas. Indeed, they're on the run—and there's no way back for them. But they're also borderline phantoms, hanging between life and death, yesterday and tomorrow. The past and present flashes by without acknowledging them. And in the cinema, a great film has the potential to place its audience in a similar space of transit, an interim realm in which they are concurrently both absent and present. Transit is such a film; and I can't wait for you to see it.