'Transit' Is a Surreal Romance for a Scary Time

Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski in Transit (2019) (Courtesy of Music Box Films)

Roughly transposed to today from Anna Seghers' World War II novel about refugees fleeing the Nazis, Christian Petzold's Transit resonates in all the worst ways.

Christian Petzold

Music Box Films

March 2019


It's a sign of the times, maybe, that when one of the characters says at the start of Christian Petzold's Transit, "Paris is being sealed off," the first thought is not of war but of terror. A police van has just raced past with that curious (to American ears) Euro-yodel and it seems almost certain that any moment we'll be treated to a faux-CNN news crawl on a nearby TV: 20 Dead in Paris Attack. But there don't appear to be any TVs. No cellphones, either. But the vehicles, clothing, the riot police's gear, it's all of the moment. What exactly is Petzold up to?

The director and writer certainly is not in a hurry to tell us. In the meantime, he has us following the hollow-eyed Georg (Franz Rogowski), whose mien is something akin to Rufus Sewell's lean and hunted look, and is in a hurry to get out of Paris. He may be involved with some kind of underground cell, agreeing as he does to help a wounded man wanted by "the occupying authority" escape their clutches. At the same time, Georg is carrying some letters from Weidel, a man he was meant to help but who committed suicide before they could meet. Weidel has a wife in Marseille, eager to reunite. Things are falling apart fast, with a police roundup, a tense escape on a train, the sense everywhere of jaws snapping shut.

Once in Marseille, the movie opens up and takes in some air. Petzold's camera luxuriates in the warm Mediterranean tones and the fragrant air of romance, spiked as it is with impending desperation. Georg, who may have had a moral sense before the current situation but has long since jettisoned any such qualms, is now inhabiting a dead man's identity and working it to get out of the country.

Like many a character that we might expect to find in the type of noir-ish existentialist setting that Petzold has created for his story of slow and creeping dread, Georg is a man of subdued but conflicted emotions. He seems at first little more than your average civilian being tossed about by the tides of bloody history: doing what he must to survive. At the same time, though, those emotions that threaten to tie him to an increasingly dangerous place begin to arise.

Franz Rogowski and Cast in Transit (Courtesy of Music Box Films)

First there is Driss (Lilien Batman), the adorable little boy with the deaf mother whom he meets randomly and develops a father-like attachment. Then there is Marie (Paula Beer), the haunted beauty with dangerous romance stamped all over her who keeps running up to him, thinking Georg is somebody else, and then dashing away as though she has seen a ghost. One way or another, these human attachments seem bound to keep Georg circling in this port city filling up with all the increasingly panicked and impoverished refugees needing to get on that last boat out.

Petzold's story has its frustrations, particularly the looping repetitions of its last third, in which Georg, Marie, and her partner Richard (Godehard Giese) enact a somewhat desultory love triangle. There's also the stubborn nature of his decision to take Anna Seghers' 1939 novel about refugees fleeing the Nazis and transpose it roughly to the 21st century. The former, though, while dramatically stumbling, is true in its way to the trapped sensation of the refugee experience—its long boring waits scattered with panicky scurries for sustenance, refuge, or exit. The latter might not make perfect dramatic sense but it skillfully evokes the horrors of the past, with the oblique references to camps and "cleansings" and the mostly unseen but steadily approaching occupying armies, while dropping it abruptly into a modern-day setting.

Jittery in story but somber in mood, there's something about Transit that resonates strongly in a year when desperate refugees pour over borders while strongmen rail against them. This odd but frequently gripping movie might not have the strict formalist sting of Petzold's East German drama Barbara (2012) but the same grey overhang of authoritarianism bounds the little flashes of sunny humanity we're glimpsing here. The restive, anxious mood of survival and love only being possible in an ever-smaller circle of humanity, sadly, cannot help but feel like a crucial document of the time.






In Amy Seimetz's 'She Dies Tomorrow', Death Is Neither Delusion Nor Denial

Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow makes one wonder, is it possible for cinema to authentically convey a dream, or like death, is it something beyond our control?


The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.


John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.


Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.


Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.


Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.


Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.


Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.