Based on a 1944 novel by Anna Seghers, ‘Transit’ is a classic World War II tale in the vein of ‘Casablanca’. Seghers’ book was very explicitly situated itself in then-current events, against the backdrop of the Nazi occupation and under the shadow of Hitler’s war machine. But German writer/director Christian Petzold has filmed in contemporary Marseille with no concessions to period designs, creating a world in which displaced persons seeking escape from a repressive regime looks all too familiar in the 21st century.
In the early 1940s, Marseille, then a part of France's “free zone”, was a debarkation point for refugees fleeing the war, making it a place where desperate people hung on by their fingernails waiting for an exit visa and passage to Spain or points further west. It's a place where survival was a transactional enterprise, as money changed hands.
The story concerns Georg (Franz Rogowski, ‘Happy End’), a refugee and ostensibly a member of a resistance movement, who narrowly escapes detection when trying to deliver important letters to a writer on the run from authorities. When he discovers that the writer has died, he acts to take the man's identity in order to use his visa and passage to Mexico. But the mystery surrounding this dead writer is further compounded by the man's estranged wife, Marie (Paula Beer, ‘Frantz’), who is frantically searching Marseille for her husband in order to secure her own escape. How much Georg reveals to Marie about the fate of her husband will likely determine whether he can extricate himself from the city under siege.
George also encounters a young migrant boy, Driss (Lilien Batman), and his mother, Melissa (Maryam Zaree), who are similarly living in limbo. In his friendship with the boy, Georg weighs the responsibility he feels towards a vulnerable child and his own self-preservation, as news comes of advancing forces that are "cleansing" nearby towns.
Unable to stay or go, to save himself or anyone else, Georg gets caught in a limbo state; for him, Marseilles is purgatory.
The technology of government bureaucracy is still at the typewriter-and-ink stamp stage in the film. Neither the costume nor production design betrays a specific decade, though the latter is partially a byproduct of how much time the film spends in anonymous offices and cafés and hotel hallways. But the excellent, restrained performances reinforce the characters' responses to dramatic challenges and moral tests as timeless. Unable to stay or go, to save himself or anyone else, Georg gets caught in a limbo state; for him, Marseilles is purgatory.
Petzold had previously shot ‘Phoenix’, a Hitchcockian noir about assumed identities, riffing on ‘Vertigo’ and set in post-war Berlin; and ‘Barbara’, about a young woman's determination to escape a repressive East Germany. The themes of both movies (and the love triangle of ‘Casablanca’) inform ‘Transit’, especially the air of uncertainty and shame that hangs over those trying to flee, knowing they will be leaving people behind.
Avoiding the set dressing of World War II, ‘Transit’ still feels authentic and human, even if the particular dramatic circumstances are far in the past. It only underscores how, when you look over your shoulder, it often feels like the past is always present.