review by Kate Blair
“Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it,” or so the saying, attributed to philosopher George Santayana, goes. And yet, there is a fatalism to Christian Petzold’s newest film, Transit, that implies even our understanding of the recent past may not rescue us from potential catastrophe.
Transit depicts an occupied Versailles in which Jewish people are desperate to escape as a fascist regime tightens its hold on the country. While this description of an occupied France sounds like a depiction of the Nazi regime, Transit’s events take place at some indeterminate point in the modern day. In a time when fascism is on the rise across the world, the film is a harrowing portrait of what could be history in the making, or something of a parallel reality.
The characters are caught in a sort of purgatory while they await the falsified documents and travel arrangements that will allow them safe egress. Transit becomes a state of permanence. The word refers not just to travel, but to a transitory place between danger and safety, where no catharsis can be found. Transit refers also to a space between present and past, where this film takes place.
The film opens on Georg (Franz Rogowski), who agrees to deliver a letter in exchange for some cash. This errand puts him unexpectedly in possession of papers that allow him to assume the identity of a renowned writer, named Weidel, who has recently passed away. In addition to becoming a refugee, he becomes a ghost, which puts him in good company with the other refugees vying to escape the country.
Georg drifts from cafe to cafe, catching glimpses of soon-to-be familiar faces adrift in a sea of bureaucracy that precludes forward momentum. The refugees’ lives are defined by fear and inertia. Their daily interactions are fueled by updates: Who is trying to leave? When, where, and how will they go? When Georg falls for a mysterious woman, Marie (Paula Beer), herself in a permanent state of waiting, he is forced to reckon with his position in all new ways.
Transit is based on the 1944 book of the same title, written by Anna Seghers and based on her own experience of escaping France during Hitler’s advance. The atrocities of the past therefore weigh heavily on this film, though the contemporary milieu it portrays is populated with sleek silver cars, glass skyscrapers, and slim-tailored suits. Absent, though, are more specific markers of time period, such as cellphones or political insignia. The result is a chilling in-between where viewers can’t comfortably situate themselves.
In bringing the storyline into the modern day (or somewhere near it), Transit asks its audience to imagine and recontexualize history, to admit to ourselves that the past remains with us not only through the trauma of survivors, but in the political and social conditions all around us. While the film may not shock anyone out of complacency, it is a moving tale of lost souls, begging not to be forgotten.