‘Transit’: Exploring the State of Being a Stateless Man

Currently I am reading the 1944 novel by Anna Seghers. It is a difficult and fascinating read.  The novel was discussed in greater detail in a Lee’s Perspectives Post 2.17.2019

Wall Street Journal review by Joel Morgenstern 3.7.2019

The hero of Christian Petzold’s film flees the forces of fascism, takes on another man’s identity, then falls in love with his wife.

TRANSIT Regie Christian Petzold

Instead of summoning up the haunting strangeness of Christian Petzold’s “Transit” by summarizing the action, which is sporadic, or specifying the time and place, which are ambiguous, let me recount a sequence that begins with a little blob of something being heated in a teaspoon over a candle. Is it heroin? No, it’s solder. The hero, Georg (Franz Rogowski), a German refugee in France, is trying to repair a loose connection on a radio while a young boy looks on, transfixed. When the radio comes to life, it plays a song that moves Georg deeply—his mother sang it to him when he was a child. As Georg sings along, the boy’s mother, Melissa (Maryam Zaree), comes home from work and watches. She doesn’t listen, since she’s profoundly deaf, but soon, signing briskly, she tells her son to tell Georg that she’d like to watch him sing the song again. Which he does, with redoubled feeling that’s reflected on her face.

It’s an exquisite moment in an extraordinary film that uses the occasion of Georg’s fraught journey to depict his state of being, the anxious limbo in which he finds himself trapped. The screenplay is based on the 1944 Anna Seghers novel of the same name, an existential thriller set during World War II. The novel’s unnamed narrator is an anti-Nazi German who, having escaped from a concentration camp, flees to Occupied France in the hope of escaping yet again to some distant, beckoning freedom. The film is also set in France, and Georg, the German hero, has similarly escaped from Germany, with hopes of ending up elsewhere, but that’s where the parallels end.

Georg’s travails play out in layered slices of time. He is visibly a citizen of the present; contemporary cars fill the streets of Paris and Marseilles. Yet his story throbs with movie-mythic feelings of a World War II past—the Paris montage in “Casablanca” comes to mind and heart—except that it’s an alternative past in which the Nazis have been replaced by unnamed fascists enforcing a brutal rule, as fascists have done throughout history. (After assuming the identity of a writer who has committed suicide, Georg falls in love with Marie, the dead man’s wife, an anguished beauty played by Paula Beer.)

The refugee’s plight, as “Transit” sees it, is neither temporal nor transitory, but an infection of the soul that feeds on the isolation that precipitated it. Surrounded by others in perpetual transit, Georg loses hope. Having taken someone else’s identity, he loses his own. It’s remarkable that he’s so affecting—the man is not a bubbly spirit—but Mr. Petzold’s film is full of surprises, including the identity of the seemingly omniscient narrator. Hans Fromm did the fine cinematography, and the Talking Heads provide a coda that sounds oddly antic at first, then becomes, in the context, frightening, even crazed. “We’re on a road to nowhere,” the lyrics go. It’s the perfect refugee anthem.



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