Directed by Christian Petzold
Transit exists outside of time, at least any sort of familiar sense of time. It’s Casablanca set in the modern day, but that blend of past and present, without getting into the more symbolic elements, makes our own social history feel so immediate.
A period piece film having to do with Nazi-occupied France would be to aim for logical, practical accuracy. Petzold’s film attempts to capture something more emotional, the feeling of such a time and place, and he does so by ignoring time. We feel as trapped, transient and detached from life itself as Georg (Franz Rogowski).
He flees from Paris to Marseille under the assumed alias of a deceased writer. Marseille then acts as a sort of purgatory, a place that exists to be passed through, assuming you’re able to. The only ones safe from persecution are those who can prove they will continue on to a new destination.
Marie, the wife of the man whose identity Georg has taken, will repeatedly run up to him, as if she recognizes him, only to realize he’s not who she thought once he turns around. It happens repeatedly and is in a way all the more bewildering when he meets her later on by chance, though this time she seems not to recognize him at all.
They will fall in love as they both wait for a way out of Marseille. He uses her husband’s identity to get access to a cruise liner ticket to Mexico, and she reveals that she needs to find her husband because he has her visa. Georg tells her he’s dead, without getting into the details, but she refuses to believe it. Whether because she’s stubborn or oblivious to other factors at play, the degree to which she is out of touch with reality will come to reflect Georg’s same disconnect. They are but two of many characters operating under certain assumptions which will be called into question over the course of the film.
There is a plot here, one that does closely mimic Casablanca, both in the love triangle and sense of sacrifice to a greater cause. Marie (Paula Beer) is living with a doctor seeking passage to Mexico and to whom Georg will eventually sell his own ticket. Within this level of the text this is a story about love and duty and how, in such an oppressive environment as this, they come into conflict.
But beyond that Transit has a bit of David Lynch mixed in. Marie’s partial recognition of Georg, for example, is brought back up near the end, when after she boards the ship to leave Marseille, he sees her walk by. That he recognized a woman who is, based on context, not the woman he thinks, well it explains to us why Marie thought she knew him when he first arrived.
I suppose identity here is fluid. We don’t know who Georg is, though we receive certain clues, such as his friendship with a young boy and a demonstration that he’s handy with various electronics. But within this story and for the purposes of his own survival he takes on the identity of a writer, and when pushed for certain information to prove he is indeed this writer, he responds each time. He has either memorized enough of the man’s writings (read over the course of the train voyage from Paris to Marseille) or simply become that man. After all that man’s wife did recognize something within him.
So we’re forced to call into question what makes us who we are. We think we know Georg after spending all this time with him, but he may not even know himself, at least after having been forced to be someone else for so long.
The way the film ends even goes a step further and interrogates the world itself. Is Georg stuck in Marseille or in somewhere else. Maybe it’s the afterlife, though I think any search for answers undermines the wonderful ambiguity of the film. This is a world without answers, without concrete identities, where even money seems to have little value since so many of these characters are near starvation even as they live in a vibrant, upscale beach city. Our understanding of what holds value goes out the window.
Staying true to all of these ideas, the film will end with a smile. Georg turns around, hoping to see Marie once more, though understanding that because of what’s transpired such a thing is impossible. But he knows, and we know, that logic doesn’t apply here. This really is some sort of purgatory, out of the way of recognizable time and place. It finally seems that Georg has come to understand this. He has willingly abandoned any attachment to reality, choosing instead to smile when he thinks she has returned, even after we’re led to believe she has died.
So that smile is a wonderful, poetic, effective image on which to end. We don’t see what he sees, of course, because that would be an answer for a film which doesn’t claim to offer any. All that matters is that he believes, even if we don’t.
I suppose in a way this severs our identification with the main character. Him being the person we follow into this world, we are more than likely going to relate to his goals and his fears. The stakes are established through his character, and we learn about the intricacies and mysteries of this world at the same time he does. But by the end he has leaned into those mysteries whereas we more than ever interrogate them, simply because they don’t add up. We continue to look for answers while we stops searching.
Up Next: Midsommar (2019), Red River (1948), Wild Rose (2018)