(This film review of “Transit” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 11 April 2019.)
Directed and written by Christian Petzold, based on the novel by Anna Seghers; starring Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Maryam Zaree and Ronald Kukulies
Part of our ongoing fascination with the Holocaust on screen is the rich diversity of stories. Relatively few English-speakers may recognise the name Anna Seghers (the pen name of Netty Reiling), a German-Jewish Communist whose autobiographical 1944 novel “In Transit” is the basis for the new German language film “Transit”, directed by Christian Petzold.
Petzold is part of a new generation of German experimental film-makers, and is best known in the Jewish community for directing “Phoenix” (2014), a noir-ish drama set in immediate post-war Berlin, where a disfigured German-Jewish Holocaust survivor tries to recover her life, raising important questions of personal identity, collaboration and betrayal.
In “Transit”, Petzold again turns to a Jewish story, based on Seghers’ escape from Nazi-occupied France via Marseille in 1940. In the film, the lead character “Georg” (Franz Rogowski) is a German refugee in France seeking to flee the country as the “fascists” close in on him. Here is where Petzold’s film takes a creative and extraordinary turn: although his film is firmly a World War Two story of refugees and attempted escape, he has transplanted it to the present day, taking place in a fully recognisable modern France where everything appears contemporary, with exception of an absence of the internet and mobile phones.
In his journey of escape, Georg takes on the identity of Weidel, a German writer who has committed suicide in Paris and whose transit papers Georg has picked up. Weidel was a Communist and the Americans pointedly do not want him, although the Mexicans do; in his political naiveté, Georg travels through these scenes as a damaged innocent abroad. Georg is in fact damaged: actor Franz Rogowski speaks with a pronounced lisp, the result of an operation on a cleft palate in his youth – giving him great similarity to Joaquin Phoenix.
Georg spends his time with other increasingly desperate refugees (some of them Jewish) in a dreary and washed-out Marseille. They visit consulates looking for letters of transit, sullenly wait in endless queues and avoid confrontations with the authorities. Georg befriends an immigrant family, acting as a surrogate father to a young boy, and falls in love with Marie (Paula Beer), the wife of the dead writer whose identity he has appropriated; she in turn is living with a noble doctor who assists the poor and is also planning to leave. Marie thinks her husband Weidel is still alive and wandering Marseille, because people keep telling her that he has been there: the truth is that it’s really Georg.
The film comes across as a twisted form of “Casablanca”, the 1942 Humphrey Bogart film set in wartime French Morocco, with Georg as Rick, and Marie as Ilsa, the doctor as Victor Laszlo. But this is no homage to that film: blurring the time periods results in a mind-bending, time-crunching movie of displacement and deeply uncomfortable resonances to the present day of refugees and an apparent turn to nationalist, “keep them out” governments in Europe and elsewhere.
The Anna Seghers (Netty Reiling) “back story” provides important context for both her book and Petzold’s film adaptation: Born in Mainz on the Rhine in 1900, despite her Communist activities, she maintained a strong Jewish identity, writing her doctorate thesis in art history (University of Heidelberg, 1924) on “Jews and Judaism in the Work of Rembrandt”. Following the rise of the Nazis, she was briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo, and fled Germany in 1932, moving to Zurich and then Paris. There she wrote the acclaimed novel “The Seventh Cross” – later a movie starring Spencer Tracy – about seven men attempting to escape a Nazi concentration camp, one of very few movies during the war to depict Nazi camps. When the Germans invaded France, she left via Marseille in 1940 for Mexico with her husband, Hungarian László Radványi. After the war, she returned to Germany, living in East Berlin until her death in 1983 and became one of the most famous East German writers.