Christian Petzold tells emotionally rich, often female-led stories, which he intertwines closely with the settings they are located in. But he is most of all known for the stunning conclusions of his narratives – these moments have often been considered the best parts of his work, films like Phoenix and Barbara seem to only come full circle during their last beats. The reason for that, is Petzold’s way of letting the temporal and spatial aspects of the narrative fade into the background for a moment, narrowing his gaze down on the humanist, universal and timeless truths that the characters are confronted with.
With Transit, a mainly Marseille-set story about a man that gets caught up in complications of love and identity while trying to flee Europe as a refugee, it seems like he wants to reshape the way he tells these stories – it is a logical and very bold step forward in the context of his body of work.
Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer in TRANSIT. All rights to Schramm Film / The Match Factory
The film is an adaptation of Anna Segher’s World War II novel with the same name, but while the narrative is similar in general plot points and dialogue, the film removes it from its original historical context and reframes it into a modern-day setting. One would expect Petzold to adjust the story to that new setting, but he doesn’t. It’s very strange and feels borderline kafkaesque, but it works immensely well. The narrative manages to comment on its real-life context by highlighting universality instead of being specifically descriptive – the refugees of today’s Europe get a part of their story told too, even though the book template is broadly based on the experiences of refugees more than 70 years ago.
Petzold shows what a visionary auteur he truly is. Transit is a grand (and maybe all-time great) humanist elegy to the state of aimlessness and uncertainty, that manages to capture parts of the mindset of refugees in the same breath as the deeply resonant, human feeling of being in a state of limbo – there is no way back, and the future is a puzzle. This also ties into the main theme that flows through Christian Petzold’s body of work, the mystery of identity. As an example: In a 2012 interview for Zeit Online about Barbara, the director linked the concept of identity to the way humans function in the system – in terms of interhuman connection, but especially related to how western women have for many years been defined through their work, since societal constructs and expectations pressured their identities into certain templates and left little room for individualism.
But in every single one of his other works too, the mystery and the essence of identity, how they shift and get lost, found and re-invented, play a huge role in the characters lives. Transit once again examines this theme, it portrays how with fleeing, there also is a desire to reinvent oneself in a way that has some sort of self-owned control. The necessity of reinvention after one’s life gets disrupted unwillingly is obvious. But the will for a good life in the future, a life that is not anymore controlled by chance and the cruelty of the world, but by oneself, is even greater.
Petzold introduces this theme through the attendance of love, the journey these characters are going on is one that seems much easier through mutual, real love – something that is not bound to circumstances, something that exists in a vacuum and that is connected to the mentioned control. He poses the question: Is there a point in a continuation of life without a perspective of love? For the characters there isn’t. A sense of security that love brings is needed as the stepping stone for a Transit in life – the next level of uncertainty in existence seems pointless without a checkpoint, without a purpose. But it also means letting go of the past, of past loves, of past emotions – something that is difficult by nature. These complications accompany the story that Transit tells, and finally define it in its final act.
Marseille, a city shaped by its position close to the sea, a place that encapsulates a port atmospherically and visually (and in this case also thematically), is the perfect setting for this narrative, and Petzold manages to give it a warm and quiet texture that is permanently confronted by the urgency of the narrative. It’s a visually understated film, but it looks gorgeous and it also finds some beauty in the aimlessness that the narrative brings. Uncertainty is a part of the human condition and its something very natural, and thus – in its own way – beautiful. Café’s play a huge role in the setting, they are the place where people meet, where connections are made and lost, where many things happen on the inside. They portray some sort of hope for the future, since you never know who is gonna come through the door in the next moment.
In the next big role after her breakout in Francois Ozon’s Frantz, Paula Beer shines as Marie, a woman clinging onto the remains of the past. The searching nature that shapes her aura, is permanently reaching through the screen. She has a face that works like a landscape, every emotion she feels can be seen. Beer’s acting is so accomplished, because she knows exactly how to work her expressive face, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in her place. Her presence, even though she isn’t physically present a lot, is a part of the narrative, since it explains why Georg, played by rising star Franz Rogowski, feels so connected and fascinated by her, besides the bigger narrative-based reasons that play into their relationship. Latter captures his character to an all-encompassing extent, he fluidly transforms himself into Georg, his face and his interactions permanently radiate the uncertainty that defines his character. The casting of these leads is perfect in its complementariness, like two damaged fragments they fit together in some way, even though its not clear in which one exactly.
I feel like Transit might get the acclaim it truly deserves only over time, being a very unusual film that might be easier digestible on a rewatch – but all the same, I do think that this is an incredible work of art, one that works through strong human emotions, and an incredibly innovative attempt at storytelling, only possible within the realm of cinema. It’s one of the most interesting and accomplished dramas I have seen in a long time, but it’s also a monument of empathy towards the people that are currently confronted with the reality of the state of Transit, not only from an allegorical perspective, but from a literal one.