Transit (Germany-France, 2018)

On the road to nowhere

Transit is a fascinating and disorientating adaptation of Anna Seghers’ WWII novel based on her experiences escaping the Nazis via Marseille. Daringly, scriptwriter-director Christian Petzold sets the film in the present day with some period touches (such as a typewriter and retro-clothing) so drawing parallels between the fascists of then and the increasingly fascistic now. This Brechtian aesthetic reinforces the Kafkaesque influence on the novel which includes the protagonist Georg (Franz Rogowski) taking on the identity of a dead writer to try and escape and when he has to prove, to the authorities, that he wants to leave in order to be granted leave to leave. In addition, the writer’s wife, Marie (Paula Beer), mistakes Georg for her husband briefly a couple of times and their lives become entangled.

One indisputably modern element is the African migrants who Georg befriends which adds to the difficulty he has in leaving due to the emotional bond he forges with a youngster, Driss (Lilien Batman). In one superb scene he returns to his friend’s address to find it populated by bewildered migrants; Driss and his mother have gone. Marie, meanwhile, is involved with a doctor who needs to leave but is incapable of doing so without her and she is waiting for her husband and doesn’t believe Georg when he tells her he’s dead. The characters are caught in a liminal space which is, as shown in a parable told by Georg, hell.

Petzold brilliant captures the constant anxiety of living on the edge as police sirens disrupt the soundscape and raids are commonplace. Beer channels Nina Hoss’ (a Petzold regular) distanciated acting style: she’s there but not there which can be seen in a number of Petzold’s films; for example Phoenix and Yella. Both Beer and Rogowski are brilliant in their roles of people trying to act normally in extraordinary circumstances.

Kafka may be the novelist of our time as politicians insist that lies are true and people act as if nothing is seriously wrong in the world (be it Covid-19 or climate catastrophe); Trump suggesting that left wing fascists are a threat is his latest idiocy and Johnson blames care home for deaths that was the fault of his government. But as Kafka (and TS Eliot) showed, human beings don’t have a strong grip on reality so most people don’t seem to realise we’re on the ‘road to nowhere’; which, incidentally, is the Talking Heads song that plays out Transit.

Another Brechtian dimension to the film is the suggestion that what we’re seeing is fiction (which of course it is). A voiceover narrator (who is revealed to be the manager of a restaurant where Georg leaves the manuscript), it is suggested, is reading the novel left by the writer (which Georg takes and which, apparently, is Seghers’) and there’s occasionally a mismatch between what is said and what we see; exactly like today’s world then! James Latimer, in Cinema Scope, is worth reading after seeing the film which is on MUBI.

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