The cruelest twist of history is how it mercilessly repeats. As the dust of World War II settled, German author Anna Seghers wrote Transit, a novel that centered on a concentration camp escapee fleeing Nazi forces. While headlines and political propaganda might paint refugees are invading swarms, Seghers’ book aimed to restore the personhood of these people, sharing their stories to display their humanity. 75 years later, the debate over refugees still rages regularly. Which might explain why German filmmaker Christian Petzold’s adaptation of Transit is obliquely placed, making its setting as timeless as its harrowing tale.
Franz Rogowski stars as Georg, a sharp-eyed but smartly stoic German, stranded in occupied France. As military forces come closer, he seeks a way out and discovers good fortune in the misfortune of another. Asked to carry important letters to a famous writer called Weidel, Georg does not find the man, only what he’s left behind: an abandoned manuscript, a bathroom caked in blood, and an unmarked grave. Snatching the dead man’s travel papers, this blue-collared nobody has a chance to escape. But a trip to Marseilles risks everything. There, Georg finds not only the ally he needs to get him overseas, but also Weidel’s wife Marie (Paula Beer), who doesn’t realize she’s a widow and is awaiting her husband’s arrival. Against the odds, these two sullen strangers rediscover love, which pushes them to impossible choices.
Watching Transit, you might initially assume its set right after World War II, like its source material. Then curious details pop up like a casual reference to the 1978 George A. Romero zombie movie, Dawn of the Dead. While no one uses cell phones or laptops, the bars boast flat-screen TVs. Still, the costumes, while contemporary, are suits and dress lines that harken back to the classic Hollywood romances of Casablanca and To Have and Have Not. Plus, Petzold avoids using Nazi iconography. But while the enemy’s identity is left vague, talk of “fascists,” “camps,” and “cleansing” makes the threat they pose clear: Death.
This threat looms over the French coffee shops, cobblestone streets, and snug apartments overlooking the dazzling ocean, making their beauty feel fragile and all the more precious. So too is love. This is not a melodrama where clothes will be tore, tears will flood down trembling chins, and confessions of guilt or proclamations of affection will rattle the theater. These refugees don’t have the luxury for such an emotional spectacle. Their pain is reflected in tired eyes. Their love expressed in simple gifts of ice cream sundaes or stolen kisses. Everything is this place feels subdued, yet no less poignant. Because every subtle shift in expression and softly spoken admittance reminds us of a life lived on a razor’s edge. These people forced to depend on the humanity of others must walk on eggshells and gently treasure every bit of pleasure that might come their way before the riot-gear-wearing troops take it all away.
The ambiguity of the setting rejects the sanitizing too common in period pieces centered on historical injustices. With those, it’s too easy to see the dehumanization of a people as a terrible artifact of a time long gone. One rousing monologue backed by soaring instrumentals might send audiences out of the theater feeling racism is dead. Fascism is forever defeated. Indifference to the plight of refugees is obsolete! But the slipperiness of Transit’s setting denies us that false comfort while enhancing the urgency of Georg and Marie’s plight. But it is the performances of Rogowski and Beer that ground it.
Like Bogart, Rogowski carries a beguiling yet beleaguered bravado and he’s got a unique mug on him. Dark eyes glint beneath a strong brow. A crooked nose and scarred upper lip suggest a hardscrabble backstory that makes Georg instantly read as a scrappy survivor if not hardened loner. But in Marseilles, where the threat feels farther away, Georg comes alive. A soft smile emerges, along with gentle hands, and a voice cracking but warm as he sings a nearly forgotten lullaby. Beer’s eyes match his for intensity, flashing with suspicion, regret, and longing. Her downturned lips are a sharp warning that shifts to a tender invitation as the corners slide up into a slight smile. This is a film of little victories, treasured moments. Transit’s leads reflect this with subtleties so sharp they sting.
For a tale of war, invasion, genocide, and star-crossed lovers, Transit is almost alarmingly quiet. To a world gone mad, it’s a whispered call to compassion. Yet its message comes across loud and clear.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com