Review: Transit is a Nazi-Era Thriller Updated to Modern Times

Georg (Franz Rogowski) is caught between a rock and a hard place. He has no papers, can’t secure a visa, and is running out of contacts in an increasingly hostile atmosphere. Tension is mounting in occupied Paris, and troops are cracking down with raids on the undocumented. There are talks of camps and midnight flights from the city, and desperate attempts to find transit to a sympathetic country. A friend in a bar asks Georg to take a letter, some money and documents to a writer in a certain hotel room. When he gets there, he finds the writer has committed suicide. Georg takes his papers and the novel he’s working on. And thus he rather casually begins taking on the writer’s identity. Georg boards a freight train along with his injured comrade, Heinz, and sneaks into the port city in search of a way out of as the walls are closing in.

Image courtesy of Music Box Films.

In Marseille, Georg dodges the police and looks for housing, striking up a friendship with a young boy and his mother (we learn that they are the family of Heinz, who died from his injuries on the train). He searches for food, narrowly avoids attention, and continuously runs into the same mysterious woman (Paula Beer), on the street and at the consulate. She’s searching for someone, or something. Does she know him? Does he know her?

The woman, Georg learns, is Marie, the wife of Weidel, and she’s the very person he’s meant to deliver a correspondence to. She is unaware that her husband is dead, and Georg manages to impersonate the deceased writer to obtain tickets for a ship from the Mexican consul. It leaves in a few days, and if he can maintain a low profile and gain the trust of the beautiful widow, he might make it to Mexico and away from the danger.

The bustle of the port city and hushed exchanges between lost souls recalls Casablanca; there’s a tension in even the smallest encounters and a dreamlike quality to Georg’s wandering days. He survives off pizza and wine from the local cafe, and gradually assumes Weidel’s identity entirely. The film is intermittently narrated by an unknown confidant of Georg, sometimes announcing what he felt or minor details from his days in Marseille. But as the film progresses, there are increasing mismatches between what’s narrated and the action onscreen––they’re mostly small differences, the narrator describing a backward glance that doesn’t happen, or an inconsistency in dialogue. But it’s a telling announcement in a film about covert agendas and secret identities––when everything is hidden, how can one recollect what is truth even in their own memories?

Transit is a difficult, paranoid film that sometimes operates as a tense thriller, sometimes an absurdist political commentary. It is based on a novel by the same name by Anna Seghers, set in Nazi-occupied Paris. The film updates the era to present day Europe, but director Christian Petzold leaves almost all other details intact, giving us little explanation of the conflict surrounding the Fascist climate. It’s a brilliant choice, giving the film both a languid and a nightmarish quality. The rise of nationalist rhetoric and tension in today’s world reflects the haunting details of the past. There are times when the film feels almost dystopian, like Children of Men in its most taut sections. And that is when Transit feels most shockingly vital and radical. There’s a complexity and nuance to this storytelling; you know that these moments have greater allegorical significance, and that they are standing in for urgent societal philosophies.

At one point, assuming the identity of the dead writer Weidel, Georg tells a parable of a man waiting to register at the gates of hell. He waits hours, then days, then years. When another person passes by, the man asks if the stranger knows when he can gain entrance. The stranger looks around and replies simply “This is hell.” That sense of meaningless suffering, of bleak loneliness and searching are at the core of Transit, and what makes the film such an achingly human experience.

You can see Transit at the Music Box through March 21.

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Matthew Nerber

Matthew Nerber is a performer and theater artist in Chicago, and a former literary contributor with the Generation, the University at Buffalo’s longest running alternative newspaper. When not seeing or making theater, Matthew can be found at the Music Box or expanding his classic rock vinyl collection. He is a 2019 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.