Hell is an eternal waiting room: so goes the basis of the parable that underlies German auteur Christan Petzold’s new remarkable film Transit. Based on the eponymous World War II novel by Anna Seghers, and premiering at this year’s Berlinale Competition it tells the tale of Georg, a German living in Paris amidst the Wehrmacht invasion in 1940, who by chance acquires the papers and manuscript of dead writer Weidel. Amongst those papers: a letter from his wife and a visa granting safe passage to Mexico from Marseille. Georg travels to Marseille intending to escape, eventually assuming Weidel’s identity And so the wait begins.
Petzold’s film, like all of his previous work, is concerned with elusive identities, spectral figures with vague backgrounds that barely exist, negotiating liminal spaces, and transitional zones. We know nothing of Georg, played with bottled up angst by Franz Rogowski, other than that his apprenticeship as a TV and radio repairmen was interrupted by the invading fascists; he is a man without a past, a ghost caught in a permanent state between arrival and departure. Indeed, all of the characters hoping for transit visas out of the port city exist suspended between a terrible here and an illusory elsewhere: a desperately lonely Jewish woman hoping for a visa to America, a loquacious German musician who chats up Georg about the absurd bureaucratic hurdles he’s had to overcome to secure his own passage to Caracas where he wants to build an opera house. The names of these faraway places – Mexico, America, and Caracas – sound out like mere abstractions, severed from any real physical place.
And there is Marie, Weidel’s wife, who unaware of her husband’s suicide roams the streets of Marseille looking for him. They all haunt Marseilles’ streets and cafes, endlessly waiting in long lines in embassies, spending their dead time in cramped sparse hotel rooms where the risk of arrest is a constant. Marie is played with tense restraint by Paula Beer, every movement and furtive glance housing a deep-seated fear of the future. Several times she mistakes Georg for Weidel, and it is not long before a relationship between them develops, further complicating already murky boundaries between who/what is real and what is not.
A Kafkaesque dread hangs heavy over the film, yet this is not to say that there are no moments of lightness, such as when Georg befriends a little boy named Driss – the son of his dead friend Heinz, with whom he fled Paris – also an illegal immigrant from North Africa, who lives with his deaf mute mother on the outskirts of town. Together they play football, go for talks or in one particular tender moment fix a radio. The narrative of anxiety is momentarily suspended and we are allowed to breath.
Although set in the past, the film is shot by Petzold’s regular cinematographer Hans Fromm in a contemporary Marseilles, dispensing with conventions such as period set design or costumes that befit a historical film. Petzold does not distract the story with the weight and brutality of historical detail (no menacing uniformed figures, no fascist symbols, etc) the characters do not disappear into their costumes, nor is it forced to conform to historical accuracy. The past is not relegated to something that happened before; instead everything is allowed to dreamily float in the present, a timeless Now spreading its mantel over the film. This Straubian simplification of the source novel is done for us to draw connections between the eternal state of exile, to the refugee crisis still making headlines today, to the feeling that nothing’s really changed between now and 75 years ago. Yet, despite the obviousness of this conceit, its achievement lies in the fact that every detail of the everyday sways in an undeniable concreteness: the cars, the store fronts, the harbor, the clothes, the restaurants and cafes all emerge distinctly from the nebulas cloud that surround the characters.
One last thing: there are certain moments in the film that are so unexpected that the viewer sits up in his seat and begins to see differently. Two moments in particular stand out: 1. Georg and his wounded friend Heinz are en route to Marseille from Paris, stowed away in a cramped airless train compartment. A long shot of the view out of the train window: nighttime Parisian suburbs give way to a dawning countryside extending out towards the horizon. 2. Georg and a doctor named Richard are walking along a deserted suburban street, the image bright with the sunlight when suddenly they walk into a stretch of shade and the image grows dark.