FOR ALL THE WAYS in which dystopian books and movies are meant to unsettle us with their visions of things gone very bad, they almost always offer a way out. This, they say, is the way things might be. Not the way they are.
Transit, the new film from the German filmmaker Christian Petzold, replaces “What if?” with “This is actually happening.” Adapting the 1944 novel by the German writer Anna Seghers, about a German refugee trying to get a visa out of occupied France, Petzold does something utterly simple and completely unnerving: he sets the film, and thus World War II, in the present day. The movie plunges right in without giving you time to get your footing. Though there is a narrator, the point of view is pretty much restricted to that of Georg (Franz Rogowski), the German who escaped Germany to Paris, and now has to escape again. We’re never told what he did to become an enemy of the Germans, never really told anything about the larger context of the war except for one salient fact: it’s happening now. Granted, it’s a slightly stylized now: there are no computers, no smart phones. Bureaucrats have to stamp papers by hand. People call on each other at their home or their hiding place, or arrange to meet discreetly in a cafe. And even that is a sign of the movie’s directness — Petzold ferrets out everything that keeps us at a remove from each other, and maybe at a remove from seeing what is happening in the world. There’s no debate here about whether we are seeing a return to fascism. Fascism is here as a fact of our present life.
Though there are romantic elements in the film — notably the sight of Paula Beer’s glamorously distraught Marie drifting through Marseille — it isn’t a romance. In this occupied France, there is no guaranteed promise of release, no brave and reckless partisan plans to topple the fascists. We are denied the sensual pleasures that decades of anti-fascist dramas have led us to expect: the period clothing, the fatalistic idealism, the thrill of a secret life beneath the everyday one, the intoxication of constant danger, and most of all the comfort that the good guys will finally win. Petzold cuts off the viewer’s escape through nostalgia, just as thoroughly as he cuts off his hero’s escape.
There are deaths, disappearances, and reversals of luck, but they are all rendered without fuss, and none provides any sense of release. When each of these episodes is over, the low thrum of tension reasserts itself. Transit’s characters exist in a state of heightened lassitude. Mostly, they wait. The title refers not to the passages the characters make (most of them go nowhere) but to the condition of life in constant displacement. Beneath the surface calm, Transit charts the derangement of everyday life in wartime.
The film begins with the occupation of Paris already in progress; as the Germans are preparing to march on the city, the French authorities seal it shut to keep enemies of the Germans from escaping. The route Georg follows in the film is the one that Seghers’s unnamed protagonist follows in the novel, and for that matter, the one that Seghers herself followed. A communist who had been arrested by the Gestapo, Seghers managed to get herself to Paris only to be forced to flee again when the Nazis marched in 1940. She spent months in the no man’s land of Marseille, finally obtaining a visa in 1941 that allowed her passage to Mexico. It was there that she wrote Transit. She returned to Germany after the war, dying in East Germany in 1983.
Marseille is where Georg winds up with no idea how he will exit or where he can go. Having inadvertently come into possession of the papers of a dead German writer who had been accepted for relocation to Mexico, Georg, broke and hungry, goes to the Mexican embassy to turn those papers in. Mistaken for the writer, Georg is handed money and a ticket for a ship leaving for Mexico in three weeks. Part of his time is spent with a young African boy (Lilien Batman) and his deaf mother (Maryam Zaree), the widow and son of Georg’s dead comrade, undocumented immigrants biding their time until they will have to try to escape. It’s a measure of how beautifully Petzold holds sentiment in check that these scenes, especially the boy’s hope that Georg will accompany them on their planned flight through the mountains, are poignant without becoming cloying.
Elsewhere, as in Seghers’s novel, Georg must indulge in layers of dissembling. He is not just an enemy of those in power, hiding from his pursuers; he hides by playing at being a man able to live in the open. And when he discovers that Marie, the woman he sees drifting around the city, is in fact the widow of the dead writer he’s impersonating, that her drifting is really a search for the husband she mistakenly believes has abandoned her, there’s yet another layer of masquerade added to the story. In her search, Marie has attracted the ardor and protection of Richard (Godehard Giese), a German doctor who has fallen in love with her, and for a while, as they join Georg in trying to obtain the necessary visas to leave Marseille, it appears the movie will become a romantic triangle.
Transit is set up for what looks like an optimistic and sentimental resolution of these various plot lines, and in the films that preceded this one (Barbara, Phoenix) Petzold has shown himself to be drawn to melodrama. Transit has a plot that depends on ironic coincidence and subterfuge. But if Petzold loves the plot complications of melodrama, he has no appetite for its aggression and no use for sentimentality. Any movie about people fleeing the Germans and awaiting letters of transit can’t help but recall Casablanca. But in contrast to that film — where Bogart, a cynic reveals himself to have been an idealist all along — the refugees in Transit live in the place that Paul Fussell once identified as the “the ideological vacuum” of soldiers in battle. There’s no time for commitment to higher ideals when you’re living a hair’s breadth away from discovery that will result in death. Cinematographer Hans Fromm offsets this atmosphere of unease, shooting the film in uncluttered widescreen compositions. And though nearly every scene seems to take place in crisp, sunny light, we don’t register what must be the warmth of the sun on the characters’ skin. Here, the recognizable pleasures of everyday life — a game of soccer with a child, an outdoor lunch and a stroll around the city — are all surrounded by a persistent, low-level dread.
As Georg, Franz Rogowski has the look of Joaquin Phoenix, if Phoenix’s nose has been through a few prizefights. His presence is simultaneously soft and intense. We’re so used to seeing heroes pursued by fascists as frustrated men of conscience and action that it would be easy to mistake Rogowski’s performance as passive. It’s anything but. Rogowski conveys the turmoil eating away at Georg, the determination to do good with limited means and few options, and the constant need to adjust his plans as circumstances change. It’s a performance that draws you slowly into Georg’s decency, which neither Rogowski nor Petzold allow to turn into heroic posturing.
As a political filmmaker, Petzold seems incapable of grandstanding. He couldn’t, for instance, employ the strong-arm tactics that gave many of Costa-Gavras’s films their force. Petzold assumes we don’t need to be told that fascism and Nazism are wrong. He’s much more interested in how living under those systems deforms the inner life of his characters. But for such an understated film, Transit hits hard. Its force stems from Petzold’s refusal of metaphor. I suspect that the sort of argument and philosophical debate we often see now in the press about our political present (“Has fascism returned?” “Is authoritaniarism the same as fascism?”) would strike Petzold as useless. Instead of metaphor, Petzold calmly, unflappably insists on what is. Transit offers the unreassuring thrill of a reasonable, intelligent person having the nerve to say, clearly, just how bad he thinks things are.
Christian Petzold has made a movie that’s not out to make anyone feel good.