Anna Seghers’s 1944 novel Transit — the basis for the vexing, fascinating new film by Christian Petzold (Barbara, Phoenix) — unfolds mainly in the port city of Marseille, where desperate people converge to book passage on ships leaving France as Nazi troops sweep across the country. Paris falls … Lyon falls … and would-be émigrés join long queues at consulates, where capricious bureaucrats might or might not issue visas and transit visas, the latter allowing people to pass through a given country only if they promise not to stay. At the heart of the story is a slow-motion mistaken-identity farce. Entrusted to deliver letters and documents to a famous leftist writer named Weidel, the narrator (a native German who has escaped from a prison camp) discovers that Weidel has just committed suicide. Almost by accident, he assumes Weidel’s identity, jumps to the head of the line for a transit visa (Mexico wants the author; the commie-averse U.S. pointedly doesn’t), and falls madly in love with Weidel’s estranged wife, Marie, who’s searching high and low for her husband — partly to get her own precious visa, partly … well, it’s hard to say. She’s confused, as is the narrator, as is the reader. The novel goes in circles and does drag on, but that’s Seghers’s intent: to make you feel the corrosive effects of fear, boredom, and hopelessness — emotions central to the refugee experience.
A book so nebulous — full of movement but essentially static — would be a challenge to capture in a straightforward adaptation, but Petzold makes it doubly hard for himself. A student of fascism’s impact on the psyche, Petzold wants to strip away the familiar Nazi context in order to view this narrative in its purest form. So he has chosen to drop the period trappings and turn the book’s occupiers into generic “fascists.” But the geographical points (Marseille, etc.) remain the same and there’s no internet; it’s 1940 with modern cars and fashions. But it’s worth shaking off the incongruities and getting on the movie’s wavelength. Once Transit’s bitterly ironic vision takes hold, it eats into the mind.
Central to its power is Franz Rogowski as the protagonist, Georg. With a scar on his lip from a repaired cleft palate, Rogowski bears a resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix (though Phoenix’s scar is apparently a birthmark), and he has a built-in hesitancy, perhaps a consequence of his slight lisp. In profile, he can seem thuggish, but straight-on and speaking, he’s vulnerable, pensive, and romantic. After bringing news of a comrade’s death to the man’s deaf wife, Melissa (Maryam Zaree), and little son, Driss (Lilien Batman), he finds himself drawn back to their apartment. That’s when the actor and the character win you over definitively. When he fixes the boy’s broken radio, the tune that comes out is from a song Georg’s mother used to sing, so he softly sings a ditty to Driss about animals returning from a journey: “The codfish comes home … / The ant rushes home … / The day has flown” — this, of course, in a world where the idea of home has been shattered. (It’s no accident that Iranian-born Zaree reminds you of a region where millions of people have been displaced.)
Standing in line at various consulates and elsewhere, Georg is forced to listen to the homeless refugees, garrulous in their loneliness, among them a disoriented dandy (Justus von Dohnányi), who has an orchestra-conducting job waiting in Caracas, and a resentful architect (Barbara Auer) with two huge leashed dogs — her ticket out thanks to their rich owners, who are already in America. Maybe they’ll escape, maybe they won’t. Those without passage contemplate a dangerous trek to Spain via the Pyrenees. Weidel’s widow, Marie (Paula Beer), flits in and out of consulates and cafés like a bereft wraith, having been told that her husband has been sighted—but missing him, of course, because he’s not really her husband. Beer (the idealized soul mate in Never Look Away) is very beautiful, but Georg’s attraction isn’t just superficial. Recognizing another lost soul, he wants to make a home with her.
Marie may strike viewers as a male projection, though her creator is a woman and her wayward feelings are meant to convey a powerlessness even greater than the men’s. She’s not just torn between Georg and her husband, who she doesn’t know is dead. She’s attached to a smitten doctor (Sebastian Hülk), who has delayed his passage to South America (where his skills are sorely needed) until he can secure a visa for her. Both novel and film drift toward a Casablanca-like climax, a stirring sacrifice on Georg’s part. At times you might wish you were watching Casablanca, that a kiss was a kiss and a sigh was a sigh and the fundamental things apply. But Transit is set in a different universe, in which such bonds are at best provisional.
Petzold has chosen not to make the protagonist the narrator (as in the novel), instead using a bartender who looks on with wry detachment. That’s the director’s voice. Petzold is part romantic, but the greater part is acrid realism. His previous film, Phoenix, was so potent because its oft-repeated theme song, Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s “Speak Low,” is about a love that contains the seeds of its own dissolution. Transit too unfolds in a world of “ships adrift, … swept apart too soon … too soon.” There’s no escape for Petzold’s protagonists. But they have the satisfaction of not having shut down or turned callous, no matter the pain. Emotion is the last refuge.
*This article appears in the February 18, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!