Transit: This Isn’t Your Life, by Scott Nye
A breathtaking film that feels at once strikingly original and a perfect example of postmodernism, Christian Petzold’s Transit – based on the 1942 novel by Anna Seghers – resists easy classification, preferring instead to absorb the film movements of both the 1940s and the present, producing from that process not a synthesis of the times, but a reflection on them, and an elegy for the senselessly dead. Grounded in the present reality, refracting a nearly-80-year-old narrative back upon it, it uses its conceit to further emphasize the feeling of being unmoored, adrift, without a country or even a home, ceaselessly thrown back among the same crowd until they become your own, until you’ve lost yourself without them, and lost them within yourself.
Georg (Franz Rogowski) finds himself a bit on the run, taking odd jobs as a means of escape. En route to Marseille with a wounded – soon to be dead – man hoping to escape the country, he picks up identity papers belonging to a writer named Weidel who recently committed suicide. Once his passenger passes away, he attempts to make inquiries about the writer’s papers, and in a bit of confusion is mistaken for the dead writer, a mistake he tries to correct before realizing the value of it. Not many people are able to move freely in Marseille. There’s a war on, a fascism is encroaching ever further into France. Everybody in Marseille is trying to get out, and Georg can, if he can pass as Weidel for a few days.
But people in Marseille seem to be thrown towards him as to the shore. There’s the woman with two dogs that aren’t hers. A young boy whose deaf mother is waiting for someone. A mysterious woman who keeps running up to him on the street in a brief moment of recognition, only for her smile to fade as she is not the man she wanted him to be. But maybe he can be. In Marseille, you can be just about anyone.
Petzold, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, kept Seghers’s narrative essentially intact, placing the characters into a timeless space that resembles the modern day in certain appearances (cars are newer, for one) while retaining anything of the past he can (people sure are more reliant on trains and boats than they tend to be anymore). There are no cell phones or branded restaurants; the clothes are neither period appropriate nor just off the rack; identity papers are necessarily fluid in a way they no longer are today. These people, this world, are as untethered to our reality as their lives. They feel at times like ghosts, stuck in purgatory, wandering down the same streets, reliving their lives again and again oblivious to the world as it changes around them.
The film is framed, as apparently the novel is, by a voiceover from a man who isn’t identified until at least halfway through, but we gather early on that although he knows the details of Georg’s story, he is still receiving it second hand. The film lulls you into the belief that the narrator will often recite things as they happen onscreen, running up against the false dichotomy that the only good narration is that which does not summarize what we can see onscreen. The narrator’s voice is too compelling for that to be the case, and even his recitation of onscreen events recontextualizes it into an secondhand perspective, making Georg’s actions seem predictable at best, futile at worst. This gambit pays off even more as the onscreen events diverge slightly from what the narrator tells us – he’ll speak of a kiss that does not happen, a gesture that went a little differently, a person in movement who is actually sitting still. When we find how he came by Georg’s story, this makes these discrepancies a little heartbreaking, but underscores Georg’s sometimes-inexplicable motivations to perpetuate the myths of his identity, and the myths of his purpose.
I was floored by Transit, glued to the end credits as I only am when a film leaves me breathless and uneager to reenter life outside it. It is one of the truly great films of the refugee era, reflecting a story and a time that we’ve defined in stark moral terms onto a time that is still very much in flux, but no less clear when addressed humanistically. It speaks to both times without being beholden to them, without soapboxing, without becoming a thesis or a message. It is a meditation on a condition that exists inside everyone, but which means life or death for some. It’s beautifully wrought, mesmerizing, and quite possibly the best film I’ll see all year.