Transit: you must remember this
08 August, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
Franz Rogowski and Lilien Batman in Transit
Directed by Christian Petzold
THE terrifying sound of jackboots stamping on the values of decency provide a monotonous and frightening refrain in Christian Petzold’s timely, thoughtful and beguiling thriller.
Transit is based on a novel written in 1944 by Ann Segher, but director Petzold has decided not to make this a historical drama: instead, he has taken the story of the chaos of refugees fleeing the incoming Nazi forces into France, and the desperation of the many who knew had to take flight or face certain death, into a contemporary thriller.
While true to the original story, by putting it into a modern context, he has created a stark warning about remembrance and learning.
German refugee Georg (Franz Rogowski) has escaped a concentration camp and has reached Paris as the forces of fascism begin to choke the life from the city.
Round-ups, stop-and-searches, raids and security barriers make the city an impossible place to hide out in. It is clear he is living on borrowed time as he slips from one derelict building to another, avoids one group of paramilitaries asking for papers just to encounter more on the next street corner.
But help of sorts arrives from an unlikely source: a friend asks him to deliver a letter to Weidel, a well-known writer staying in a nearby hotel. It details how he can get to Marseille, meet his wife and then board a ship for Mexico. Georg heads to deliver the note, only to discover the writer has killed himself. He is given the Weidel’s last manuscript, papers and transit visa and decides to try to deliver them himself…
Georg heads south and, at first accidentally, begins to build an identity using the writer’s passport – and as he does so, discovers Weidel’s wife is still waiting for him.
Coupled with this, Georg befriends a boy called Driss (Lilien Batman), whose father he has tried to help reach Marseille from Paris, and whose mother believes the only way to survive the forthcoming wave of fascism is to head into the mountains and see if they can wait it out until the world comes to its senses. It shows the wafer thin difference between those who may reach a safe haven and others deemed not important enough.
This is beguiling storytelling. Originally written as the horrors of the Second World War had engulfed Europe, the oppression of the period is all too apparent.
By transposing it to the modern day, Petzold makes an important point about where we are at the moment in terms of our trans-national political discourse, of how we treat those fleeing war, of the horrors of being stateless, of our attitudes towards refugees. By using this time travelling trick, he is asking us to remember the lessons of the 1930s as so-called “populism” sweeps a continent that should remember and know better. By deciding to keep the viewer in the here and now, the film has great impact.
Added to this, the feel of the film pays homage to the great war movies of the period that touched on the plight of the refugee. You can feel Rick’s Bar in Casablanca, the dodgy police chiefs, the collaborators, the desperate, stateless people who are hoping for a bureaucrat’s sympathy who can wield the stamp that will take them to safety.
A clever, well-acted and well-cast film, Transit is a love story, a thriller and contains a political message we ignore at our peril.