Transit is based on a 1944 novel by German-Jewish writer Anna Seghers, who draws on her own experience as a refugee. Petzold situates the drama in an historically indeterminate moment, superimposing past and present. There are no period trappings; the opening sirens could be sounding today, and the soldiers storming Paris look like contemporary French riot police.
Even after the film’s political backdrop comes more into focus, it retains an intriguing ambiguity. The viewer is drawn into a twisted tale that is by turns intimate and expansive, suspenseful and oneiric. As Georg (Rogowski) wanders the sun-drenched limbo of Marseille, jostles with throngs of other refugees, and becomes entangled with an enigmatic, beautiful woman (played by Paula Beer, who shone in Frantz), it’s as if Casablanca were re-imagined by Franz Kafka, in collaboration with Albert Camus.
Petzold sees Transit, Phoenix and Barbara (all influenced by Anna Segher’s book Transit) as a trilogy which might be called Love in the time of Oppressive Systems.
In 1940, Seghers’ compatriot, the Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin, spent time trying to secure travel papers in Marseilles, before fleeing over the Pyrénées Mountains to Spain. A shot of a street sign for Rue des Pyrénées reveals that Petzold also had his story in mind. In one of Benjamin’s final works, he remarked that “the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule,” sounding an alarm that resonates throughout this haunting film.
“What was originally a period suspense drama is now a metaphysical mystery about identity” Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
“Existential thriller about loss, trauma, statelessness.” Manohla Dargis, New York Times