Cinema Review: Transit | Under the Radar - Music Magazine

Transit

Studio: Music Box Films
Directed by Christian Petzold

Mar 13, 2019 Web Exclusive
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Early on in Transit, Christian Petzold’s new film about refugees fleeing Europe, protagonist Georg (a captivating Franz Rogowski) peers out a slat in the side of a freight train car as it shuttles him to Marseilles in secrecy. As he watches the world swiftly passing by— at first the urban landscape of Paris, then the lush green of countryside— his face relaxes for a brief moment, taking on an almost youthful expression of relief and, perhaps, wonder. It is as though for the first time he is in his element, and as the film progresses it becomes clear that he is; that for the involuntarily nomadic Georg, home is not a destination, but rather the space between destinations. It is to his dismay, then, when he arrives at the port of Marseilles only to wait, among the other displaced souls, for safe passage across the Atlantic. As Georg becomes immersed in this world of quietly desperate castaways, each maneuvering for deliverance, his stasis threatens to expose him not only to a steadily approaching fascist regime, but to the haunting possibilities of what life might have been.

Based on Anna Segher’s World War II novel of the same name, much ado has been made over Petzold’s decision to place the story in modern times. And yet truthfully, the director has instead removed the film from concrete temporal context altogether. The threat sweeping Europe is never explicitly detailed beyond murmurings of fascist forces setting up camps and performing “spring cleaning”-- presumably the detainment of communist opposition and ethnic groups. Shot in cinemascope throughout the picturesque streets, bare-bones cafes, and warm interiors of Marseilles, the urban location of Transit takes on the quality of a single-set play— colorful, yet lacking specificity; a backdrop. Modern technology seems to exist here, yet the characters have no phones or computers, communicating solely through the written word. Likewise costuming remains vague, excepting the occasional group of U.S. Naval officers dining in the background, invoking wartime. Lifting the story out of context in this way works in Petzold’s favor, as Transit exists as neither a museum piece nor a harrowing depiction of the current refugee crisis, but rather a literary tale of displacement, identity, and seeking. As Georg’s world is fleshed out with peculiar acquaintances and Kafka-esque flourishes, the necessity for this storybook quality becomes clear.

The deaths of two men come to impact Georg’s life in ways unexpected and profound— first, the writer Weidel, to whom Georg had been sent to deliver letters in Paris only to discover the aftermath of his suicide in a hotel bathtub. A chance misunderstanding at the consulate in Marseilles leads Georg to assume Weidel’s identity, and with it his visa to Mexico. He also has several odd encounters with a woman who repeatedly approaches him only to retreat, eventually learning she is Weidel’s somewhat estranged wife, Marie (Paula Beer) awaiting her husband’s return. Marie is involved with Richard, a doctor, despite her insistence that she intends to reunite with her husband. And, despite both of these facts, she and Georg fall in love— or something akin to it— as well. Petzold wisely does not burden Marie with guilt nor depict her actions as betrayal. She is equal parts adrift in tumultuous, likely insurmountable circumstances, and grasping for agency, and while Beer’s performance may not reach the heights of Petzold’s past collaborations with Nina Hoss (Barbara, Phoenix), she is suitably enchanting.

When Georg’s train comes to a halt in Marseilles, it leads to the grim realization that his traveling companion, Heinz, has succumb to an infection from a nasty leg injury. It is a recurring theme in Transit that for a refugee, to stop moving is to invite misfortune and pain. He then informs Heinz’s wife and son of his passing, and for some time becomes a surrogate father to the boy, Driss (Lilien Batman)— purchasing him a soccer ball, taking him for ice cream, and in a particularly moving scene, repairing his radio and singing a lullaby from his childhood. It is said of Marie that Georg never knew if her tears “were tears of joy or despair”, and here Georg illustrates this same confluence. To recall happier things— home, music, mother— is also to acknowledge pain in their absence. Enough cannot be said of Rogowski’s performance here, whose voice quavers with trepidation. Moreover, the character of Georg could easily be seen as apathetic, shuffling along from one incident to the next, but Rogowski infuses the character with soul and immediacy, his expression always a mix of mournful resignation and pragmatic calculation.

About a third of the way into the film a narrator is introduced, later identified as the bartender at the cafe Georg frequents, though the voice also serves to represent Georg observing himself in his new identities: the loving husband of Marie, and the caring father of Driss. At times the narration is redundant, suggesting that the intention here is not to supply information but to support the storybook tone Petzold is attempting to achieve. This playfulness may go a step too far. Particularly in the scene in which Georg is waiting at the consulate, meeting fellow refugees— the conductor heading to Caracas; the woman begrudgingly chaperoning the dogs of a wealthy couple— the proceedings feel a bit like Wes Anderson sans whimsy. Often the voiceover is charming, though it is possibly responsible for dulling the emotional impact of the film’s conclusion. Some viewers may feel they are being told a story rather than experiencing it.

In the aforementioned meeting at the consulate, Georg tells the official interviewing him a tale about a man who dies and is sent to hell. He stands in the waiting room for what seems like an eternity, anticipating entering the fiery underworld, until eventually realizing he is already there. And so Georg waits in Marseilles, observing the lives he never led; existing between; sustaining himself on seeking but never finding. 

(www.musicboxfilms.com/film/transit)

Author rating: 8/10

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