The first thing you hear in Christian Petzold’s wrenching melodrama, Transit, are wailing sirens. It’s an early warning sign of the dangers of statelessness – a status that follows around its focal subject, Georg (Franz Rogowski) – as he flees from Paris to the port city Marseille, against a backdrop of impending occupation by enemy forces. Following the profoundly haunting Phoenix (2014) that examined the deep-cutting scars of post-war guilt and trauma, Petzold once again mines painful truths from mistaken identities and tormented pasts in a drama that sits in the indeterminate space between World War II and the modern day.
As soon as the first camera shot lands on Georg, it’s clear that he is someone who isn’t allowed to occupy or own himself: he keeps his head down in cafes, he slides through dark alleyways, and smooth-talks his way into hotels dictated by circular logic (“the only way to stay is to not want to stay”) – hard-faced on the outside, but desperate on the inside – to claim and hold onto anything that would mean he could mean something. An omniscient narrator (Matthias Brandt) – a character who’s only revealed at the conclusion of the film – frequently speaks and interrupts to reaffirm astute truths that its protagonists don’t vocalise: “No one looked at him. You don’t exist in the world”. When Georg finally arrives in Marseilles, he blends right into the crowd, commuters walking past him with not a single glance into his direction. But then, for a moment, when a woman (Paula Beer) walks towards him and touches him on the shoulder – something shifts. This woman’s face keeps reappearing, her striking features of tousled hair and red lipstick making him turn around again and again in the line of the consulate; through the window of a café; in the streets of the town. She’s soon revealed to be Marie – the estranged wife of the very man Georg has taken the papers off and assumed the identity of, Weidel – a deceased writer who has been offered passage to Mexico.
Lies and half-truths drip off Georg’s words as their two lives interconnect through duplicitous circumstances, which fluctuate between real-life and fiction in a way that mirrors Petzold’s own ahistorical contextual blur between the past and the present. Though before they meet, deception isn’t a stranger to Georg. Instead, it’s a necessary trait – the only thing that guarantees his survival, and it numbs into a disinterest that makes him look at others’ near-death escapes with total apathy. A scene where he awaits his name to be called in the visa office sees him facing forward with disinterest as his fellow refugees’ voices fade into the background; a symptom of how war suppresses the way people sympathise with each other, filtering each other out – each other’s stories too difficult to process; too much a burden to bear.
Based on Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel of the same name (which cemented the story concretely in 1942), Petzold’s vague setting gives this refugee tale keenly-felt echoes in a contemporary climate of war-torn countries and mass migration. Not only does his film open up to Germany’s complex histories, but also more widely into a quietly thoughtful, aching journey of forgetfulness, forgiveness and identity in flux. His directorial mastery of restrain and tense patience feels right at home in this ‘transit’ waiting period – where Georg’s relationship with Marie grows from curiosity to infatuation – and scenes sear with their heated chemistry and plaguing questions of: What is home? Can love survive in war? Does one exist if exiled? Petzold leaves the answers hanging in the air, wrapping up his central pair in complicated scenarios that unveil their loyalties and underlying shames – pulling out these knotty emotions amongst passionate grandeurs of affection.
Though Petzold employs slow-burn pacing and an intimate one-town setting to heighten these questions, Transit doesn’t quite match up to the unease and stakes set down in Phoenix; there’s a colder distance between its handful of characters and the audience – particularly as its third-person narrator makes the story feel like you’re looking down on them from above. It takes a while longer to warm up to Georg as a result, and the empathy hits just as he begins to excavate his new identity through another’s. It’s spurred on by a sub-plot where he forms a paternal connection for a young boy, Driss (Lilien Batman), the son of his late comrade Heinz (Ronald Kukulies) – but these wispy threads don’t always come close to feeling fully explored. Driss and his Northern African mother (Maryam Zaree) are only persisting reminders that Georg’s relationships are short-lived; as is Melissa (Maryam Zaree) – another refugee that Georg initially dismisses, but eventually befriends. Though a certain parallel between Driss and Marie makes a specific shot linger (with cinematographer Hans Fromm keeping objects astutely in tight focus, even when it’s just a chocolate sundae) – it’s quickly overshadowed by his fixation on Marie, and this secondary asylum seeker story, which most obviously relates to our current refugee crisis, remains simply a supplementary arc that slips behind closed doors.
Still, what lies at the forefront of Transit is a delicately thorny, complex display of dislocation and ambiguity – Petzold deliberately holding the reins tight on this film that’s imbued with impossible questions that go right down to the bones of humanity.
Transit is playing exclusively at Golden Age Cinema and ACMI, as part of their Director Spotlight on Christian Petzold.
Debbie Zhou is an arts writer/critic and managing editor of Rough Cut. She’s just a bit obsessed with movies and the theatre, and she will always get behind a good film score. Her words also appear in Time Out Sydney, The Guardian, The Big Issue, Audrey Journal and more. Tweet her at @debbie_zhou.