Earlier this year I read Anna Segher’s novel Transit. When the film adaptation had its brief appearance in San Francisco art cinemas I watched it. The book and its companion film require the reader/viewer’s concentration in explaining the perilous life of the refugee/immigrant populations. Whether it be in World War II Europe or the world in which we live today, 2019. (Post updated 5.14.2019).
Transit – Review by J Hoberman.
Written and directed by Christian Petzold, adapted from the novel by Anna Seghers
New York Review of Books 3.7.2019
The protagonist of Anna Seghers’s novel Transit (1944)—the source for Christian Petzold’s new film of the same name—is a young German who, having escaped from a Nazi concentration camp and then a French work camp, makes his way to occupied Paris. There he is recruited by another former inmate to deliver a letter to an anti-fascist writer named Weidel. The letter is described to him as a desperate plea from Weidel’s estranged wife, Marie, who is stranded in Marseille.
But Weidel, as Seghers’s nameless fugitive discovers, has committed suicide in a Left Bank hotel room. Carrying the dead man’s suitcase, which contains a manuscript that he reads out of boredom, as well as the letter, the fugitive travels to Marseille; once there, “a specter among the visa applicants,” he finds himself, almost unintentionally, taking Weidel’s identity and applying for his exit visa. The consul seems weirdly eager to help someone so distinguished. Waiting for passage to the New World among a disparate horde of desperate souls seeking to escape Europe, the fugitive shadows and is shadowed by Marie, who is frantically searching for her dead husband; thanks to the bureaucratic trail left by the imposter, she believes him to be alive in Marseille. Tipped off that her “husband” is enjoying a pizza in a harbor café, she finds only the fugitive Weidel, and her unrealizable pursuit continues.
Seghers’s existential thriller—recounted in the first person, a tale told by one refugee to another, and written while the author, having successfully gotten out of Marseille, was in exile in Mexico—has been described as Casablanca imagined by Franz Kafka. Sartre’s No Exit, first performed in 1944, the same year that Transit was published in English and Spanish versions, is another analogue. So too perhaps is Camus’s The Stranger (1942). The underlying absurdity of the fugitive’s condition, as well as Transit’s understated modernism, belies Seghers’s reputation as a Marxist ideologue; most certainly this strain of absurdism helped interest Petzold in the material.