So far only a minority of critics feel let down by this film, but this longer than average review explains why I am on their side.



Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski


At the very end of this film, a song rings out and it amazed me by expressing my very own thoughts at that moment. The music heard is 'Road to Nowhere' by Talking Heads and the lyrics contain two statements early on which could not have felt more relevant: "We don't know where we've been" followed by, "We can't say what we've seen". Just so. This film set largely in Marseille and made by the German director Christian Petzold (it is his own adaptation of a novel by Anna Seghers written in 1942) contains just enough evidence of what he was trying to do to suggest its purpose but is so muddled in its approach that I found it impossible ever to get on terms with it. 


Transit starts off with a conceit, but luckily for me it is one of which I happened to have advance knowledge. No hint is given on screen that in its approach Petzold's film is akin to those opera productions which relocate a work written centuries ago and present it in a contemporary setting supposedly to give it more relevance. Omitting any statement as to the period and giving virtually no information about the background of those seen in the opening scene, Petzold's film immediately plunges right in with Georg (Franz Rogowski) seeking to leave Paris before the occupying forces arrive. As he heads for Marseille hoping to get a passage out of Europe, it makes sense that we should be watching a tale set during the Second World War, yet the look of the film is in the main deliberately modern. If that will confuse some, so will the narrative of the opening scenes which rush ahead with little time for detail and clarity. We may, for example, wonder why Georg is fleeing when he is a native of Germany and the obvious answer is that he is a German Jew, but that is never mentioned and instead we are fed a single belated line of dialogue about him having trouble with the Fascists.


Even before the title comes up on the screen, Georg is invited to take this journey but first he is invited to deliver two letters to a famous writer, one of them being from the man's wife. But, when he attempts to do this, it transpires that the author has killed himself leaving behind one last manuscript. Once Georg gets to Marseille with the second letter which is addressed to the Mexican consul there, he finds himself mistaken for the author. This suggests that the plot of Transit will carry echoes of Antonioni's demanding but highly intriguing classic The Passenger (1975) in which Jack Nicholson's leading character takes on the identity of another man. Eventually that is indeed what also happens here and we can anticipate too that Georg will fall in love with the author's wife, Marie (Paula Beer). That would not be difficult to guess even if Petzold after a reference to his earlier works Barbara (2012) and Phoenix (2014) had not declared in a decidedly leaden phrase that Transit completes a trilogy about "love in times of oppressive systems".


Nevertheless, however much we are anticipating these developments they are all put on hold while the starving Georg wanders the streets of Marseille. Here he appears to be accosted by chance by an 8-year-old boy named Driss (Lilien Batman) and is asked to help him with his soccer. In consequence, Georg gets to meet the boy's mother, Melissa (Maryam Zaree) a deaf mute living in Marseille illegally. It seems to be by chance that this woman turns out to be the widow of a man who travelled south with Georg but died on the journey. Admittedly, these elements do lead to striking scenes of homeless people caught up in Kafkaesque bureaucracy as they seek to get transit papers from the American consulate. However, even more emphasis is placed on the fact that Georg gets involved with young Driss to such an extent that within a few days he improbably becomes a surrogate father to the boy. All of this seems quite unconnected to Marie and the issue of Georg taking on the identity of her dead husband. Yet that is not quite the case since it turns out that we are witnessing a huge plot contrivance: Driss will fall ill, George will search out a doctor for him and by chance the doctor he finds, Richard (Godehard Giese), will be living with a woman who just happens to be the elusive Marie!


If the improbable plotting keeps us at a distance, so too does the fact that at the end of its first third the film suddenly sprouts an anonymous narrator. The tone of this narration is so literary that I even wondered if the film's stylisation was being extended in such a way that this would prove to be part of the dead author's last work uncannily predicting events that would occur after his death. But no: just before the film ends we do discover the identity of this narrator, a question that has been distracting us and all the more so because the detail in the voice over is so strong an element that Transit often feels more like a book than a film.


The last third of Transit is built around conflicts of one kind or another. Central is the pull between the duty to stay put and the desire to get away, but we are also dealing here with what could be thought of as not one but two romantic triangles. Not content with falling in love paternally with Driss, Georg is definitely by now drawn to Marie and that creates one triangle (Georg, Richard, Marie). However, Marie has not been told that her husband is dead and that leaves her desperately on the lookout for him thereby setting up what could be thought of as a kind of second triangle (Marie, her husband, the two rival living lovers). This would all be richly emotional if one could believe in it and if the fluctuating responses of the three main characters were not so irritating. In any case, even if its credibility had been greater, I would still find in the director's stylised approach a distancing effect that made me a mere witness of events and what has delighted some critics left me feeling that this was a film quite devoid of life. Some reviewers who have admired Transit have described it as Petzold's most challenging film and that at least is something with which I can agree. The key difference in our outlooks is that I regard the intellectual artiness of this film as being at odds with what it needs if it is to be an affecting portrait of people in any age driven into a limbo due to circumstances over which they have no control. I would guess that Petzold was wanting to express that, but the way he has gone about it has for me totally prevented that from happening. Nevertheless, many see it as a masterpiece.




Cast: Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Lilien Batman, Maryam Zaree, Alex Brendemühl, Sebastian Hülk, Trystan Pütter, Justus von Dohnányi, Antoine Oppenheim, Louison Tresallet.


Dir Christian Petzold, Pro Antonin Dedet and Florian Koerner von Gustorf, Screenplay Christian Petzold, from the  novel by Anna Seghers, Ph Hans Fromm, Pro Des Kade Gruber, Ed Bettina Böhler, Music Stefan Will, Costumes Katharina Ost.


Schramm Film/Neon Productions/Arte France Cinéoma/ZDF/Arte-Curzon Artificial Eye.
102 mins. Germany/France. 2018. Rel: 16 August 2019. Cert. 12A.