By Liam Lacey
Alfred Hitchcock meets Franz Kafka by way of Casablanca in Transit, the new film from German director Christian Petzold (Phoenix, Barbara). This ingenious (perhaps too ingenious) thriller is adapted from the 1944 novel by German-Jewish author Anna Seghers, who wrote it shortly after escaping to Mexico from Marseille, where the book is set.
In the book — about people caught in the limbo between hope and death — the narrator-protagonist buttonholes a stranger in a café in the port city of Marseille and begins telling his story of a refugee attempting to flee from the south of Europe before the arrival of Hitler’s invading armies.
In this radical reworking, Petzold sets the invasion story in what appears to be the present day of modern cars and skyscrapers (no cell phones or computers though.) There are references to “camps” and “cleansing” and the German invaders, though they are not specifically called Nazis. The tousled and cynical young protagonist, named Georg (Joaquin Phoenix lookalike Franz Rogowski) is a German-born, presumably Jewish refugee who is hiding out in France after escaping from a camp.
In the whirlwind of the film’s first few minutes one Saturday afternoon, Georg meets a journalist he knows in a bar, who pays him to deliver letters to a writer named Weidel, who’s living in a small hotel. But when Georg arrives he discovers the maid cleaning up after the Weidel’s suicide. Georg scoops up a bag containing the writer’s latest manuscript. He is then chased by the police, visits a safe house and then heads off to Marseille in a box car with another refugee, who is dying from an infected wound.
As a character, Georg is enigmatic and taciturn but then, he doesn’t need to do much talking. There’s a male narrator (Matthias Brandt) who weaves in and out of the film. Sometimes, the narrator sounds as though he’s reflecting Georg’s subjective experience (“No one looked at him… That’s the terrible thing. They don’t see you. You don’t exist in their world.”) At other times, he describes the action like audio description for the vision-impaired (“He watched her go. Her elegant black coat, her smart shoes.”) Or, even the hearing-impaired, with benefit of subtitles (“In that instant a police siren sounded, and then a second.”) About a half-hour in, we suddenly discover the narrator is a real, if unidentified, character in the film who isn’t revealed until near the film’s end.
The point of these narrative frames, presumably, is to suggest the refugee stories are a tangle of stories within stories. Everyone spends a lot of time in queues, waiting in offices, averting their eyes, trying to find someone who knows the answers. (One of the stories Georg tells, which he steals from the manuscript he carries, is of a man who dies and waits for years to “register” in Hell, only to discover the waiting room is the destination.) The contemporary European refugee crisis enters the story when Georg goes to deliver the bad news about the dead man on the train. He meets the man’s kid, a Moroccan boy, Driss (Lilien Batman), and his widow, part of a different group of people, hiding or on the run.
While this can feel almost pedagogical, Transit also incorporates thriller “entertainment” elements, including a mysterious, femme fatale-type who keeps catching Georg’s eye around town. The woman who Georg keeps noticing turns out to be named Marie (Paula Beer), the estranged wife of Weidel. She doesn’t know he’s dead and wants to find him because he has an exit visa for her to get on a ship.
Eventually, Georg and Marie meet but it’s through her new lover, a doctor (Godehard Giese) who’s also a refugee, hoping to catch a ship to the Americas, all of which sets us up for a Casablanca love triangle where we’re, almost, on familiar ground.
The filmmaking is taut and skillful and Petzold largely succeeds with his double-track gambit: As a nightmarish but somehow comfortingly familiar thriller about fear, persecution, and mistaken identity. It also disturbs as a prophecy of the consequences of Europe's resurgent neo-fascist politics and anti-immigrant politics.
Transit. Written and directed by Christian Petzold. Starring Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese and Lilien Batman. Opens November 9 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox.